Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


The Art of Bouncing Back

Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.

Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We’ve all heard the phrase and we know it’s true. It’s better to prevent something bad (cancer, terrorism) than it is to try to cure it after the fact.

But life is full of risks and we can’t prevent all of them. What happens when you can’t prevent something bad from happening? How well do you bounce back? It’s a question of resilience – our ability to manage stress rather than allowing it to manage us.

We aren’t resilient by nature; it’s not an inborn trait. We learn (or don’t learn) resilience through experience and practice. I’ve been reading up on resilience in a number of different articles (click here, here, here, and here). Here are some tips.

Cognitive reappraisal – we all do dumb things or fail at certain endeavors. Failures can leave lasting scars. We think of a dumb thing we did – even long, long ago – and we conclude that we’re just not up to snuff. The next time we do something dumb, it just shows how mediocre we are. We don’t bounce back effectively because, …. well, we’re just not good enough.

But we can also revisit and reinterpret our failures. For instance, I once wanted to be a baseball player. I was a good fielder but I couldn’t hit well. Ultimately, I failed and for a while I was crushed. Looking back on it, however, I realize how lucky I was to learn the lesson early. I refocused on my studies and did reasonably well. More recently, I’ve reappraised my baseball failure. Now when I fail at something, I think, “Well, maybe it’s like baseball….” That helps me bounce back more quickly.

Make connections – all the resilience research I’ve read says it’s easier to be resilient when you have a close network of friends and family. When I’m having a bad day, I sometimes just want to withdraw. But I find that I bounce back better when I’m around other people. Build your network early; you’ll need it sooner or later.

Think positively – it may sound trite but it works. If you think of yourself positively, then a failure is the exception, not the rule. Even a very stressful event isn’t really about you. Your self-image provides a protective layer. A bad thing happened but that doesn’t make you a bad person. If you still perceive yourself positively, it’s easier to bounce back. A major blow can even provide the motivation (“I’ll show them”) to bounce back strongly.

I’ve picked up some other tips about resiliency and I’ll cover them in future posts. What I’m really looking for, however, is the link between resiliency and creativity. I’ve noticed that some of my more creative moments come soon after a setback, a failure, or just a very bad day. I think that resiliency can contribute to creativity but I don’t know quite how. If you see a link between the two, let me know your thoughts.

The Art of the Wrong View

In one of my classes at the University of Denver, I try to teach my students how to manage technologies that constantly morph and change. They’re unpredictable, they’re slippery, and managing them effectively can make the difference between success and failure.

The students, of course, want to predict the future so they can prepare for it.  I try to convince them that predicting the future is impossible. But they’re young. They can explain the past, so why can’t they predict the future?

To help them prepare for the future — though not predict it — I often teach the techniques of scenario planning. You tell structured stories about the future and then work through them logically to understand which way the world might tilt. The technique has common building blocks, often referred to as PESTLE.  Your stories need to incorporate political, economic, societal, technical, legal, and environmental frameworks. This helps ensure that you don’t overlook anything.

I’ve used scenario planning a number of times and it has always helped me think through situations in creative ways – so it seems reasonable to teach it. To prepare for a recent class, I re-read The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz. I found it on one of my dustier bookshelves and discovered it was the 1991 edition.  While I remembered many of the main points, I was surprised to find a long chapter titled, “The World in 2005: Three Scenarios”. Here was a chance to see how well the inventor of scenario planning could prepare us for the future.

In sum, I was quite disappointed. The main error was that each scenario vastly overestimated the importance of Japan on the world stage in 2005. In a way, it all makes sense. The author was writing in 1991, when we all believed that Japan might just surpass every other economy on earth. Of course, he would assume that Japan would still dominate in 2005. Of course, he was wrong.

So what can we learn from this?  Two things, I think:

  1. Always remember to ask the reverse question. If it’s “obvious” that a trend will continue (e.g. Japan will dominate) always remember to ask the non-obvious question: what if it doesn’t? Today, it seems obvious that health care costs will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. But what if we make a medical breakthrough and costs plummet?
  2. Remember that resilience is better than prediction. We’ll never be able to predict the future — partially because we can’t really explain the past. But we can be prepared by building flexible systems that can respond to unexpected jolts. The human immune is probably a good model. This means building systems and organizations where information flows easily, creativity is valued, and leaders can emerge from anywhere.

I’ll continue to teach scenario planning in the future. After all, it’s a good template for thinking and planning. I’ll also be able to provide a very good example of how it can all go wrong.

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