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  • Writer's pictureSubha

Uncharted Territories: When Resilience Becomes Optimism, For Better And Worse

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

When Resilience Becomes Optimism

​As an executive and a leader, it is everyone’s dream to achieve the impossible. Let’s just think about the start of services like Airbnb and Uber. What’s more surprising than their meteoric growth is the fact that no one had managed to come up with these exquisitely simple ideas before. What about visions that just aren’t seeing the light of day?


It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the leaders at Airbnb or Uber were indeed visionaries, as are so many others that build products considered well ahead of their times.

However, for every success story that gets widely publicized, nine stories of failure remain on the sidelines. Perhaps the global business industry is both blessed and cursed to have endless optimism because this one attribute can cloud judgment more than anything else in the business can.

The biggest example of this comes to mind in the form of Theranos. From ex-army chiefs to policymakers and shark investors who are extremely hard to convince, Theranos had them all believe in the simple idea of using a droplet of blood to test for over two hundred human illnesses. Optimism here was also driven forth by a very charismatic leader who was all set to become the next Steve Jobs. What happened? Theranos is a case study in using statistics and numbers to convince ourselves of a certain outcome rather than as an objective tool.

Yes, there were some lies involved too but internally, many employees not privy to the truth, just kept on going, brick wall after brick wall. After all, seemingly incredulous ideas were having their open season, so why couldn’t healthcare follow suit?

If you are an ardent fan of the Shark Tank, like we are, you would have heard shark Kevin O’Leary occasionally tell an entrepreneur to “take his idea behind the barn and shoot it!” The investor doesn’t want to pour bad money into a bad idea, but the ever-optimistic entrepreneur just can’t seem to give it up and promises to make the sharks regret their dismissal. Is this resilience too or just blind optimism leading to unsuccessful outcomes?

Even in organizations, we see this attitude of wanting to ward off evil forces and achieve the unthinkable using sheer force of will. However, good business leaders learn very early on that optimism alone cannot take things too far, and that resilience, when misapplied, can backfire.

The Harvard Business Review calls this the stretch-goal paradox. Interestingly, it says, businesses that are the worst-poised to make radical changes are often the ones aiming for stretch goals. It becomes more of a last-minute Hail Mary than a well thought through plan of action. Does this mean that stretch goals are bad? In just the last article, we talked about building resilience, so are we backtracking now?

Luckily, we aren’t. The key takeaway from this article is sparing time to consider what is achievable and what isn’t. Behind the success of the Teslas of the world is a grand vision, but also the willingness to back it up with continuous testing and revisions. Stretch goals in this context are not a last-ditch attempt to succeed, but instead, a means to put the best minds to work on problems that no one else is solving, or even thinking of.

Resilience Is Knowing When To Stretch Here, we present a model for resilience that is loosely based on HBR’s article on Stretch Goals. You can read the full article here.

Are you a successful business? The parameters to define success may vary, but in this context, we’ll go with your bottom line. Do you see yourself running a thriving business ten years down the line? If you’ve answered with a ‘yes,’ then consider this- do you have resources available that you can spare for new adventures? If this is also true, then you are the perfect candidate for a stretch goal. You have both the time and resources needed to aim really big and even achieve it.

If you are an unsuccessful business, or if you are a fledgeling entity still trying to find its feet, a stretch goal is not for you. As counterintuitive as it sounds, you are a good candidate for smaller goals over a period of time than for the bigger objectives. Startups, on the outside, may seem like they’re doing just the opposite. But the truth is that most of them have, or aim to have someone invest in them (resources) so they can stretch even further.

Legacy organizations that thrive also have this constant drive in common. Just because they are successful, they do not avoid exploring new avenues. Good business leaders know that the thriving business of today can soon become old news tomorrow. Hence, always foraying into new avenues is the benefit accorded to them by sheer virtue of size, availability of resources, and a lack of urgent pressure to succeed. Google has a perfectly capable search engine and ad platform. And yet, with the Alphabet project, they explore everything from deep learning to renewable energy in order to build newer businesses that can thrive in the future.

Are You Resilient Or Optimistic?

Several theories in psychology point to what they call ‘pathologies’- attributes that have been developed to serve the individual but become a problem because of how much they have been practised over time. Resilience is the same. Building resilience is not just about being willing to be stretched thin. Instead, it is about knowing when not to stretch, and when to think of other ways to be flexible.

Many leaders today are unfortunately left with too little time to focus pragmatically on themselves and their personal growth. This, in turn, can inadvertently cause losses in the form of being in touch with their strengths and weaknesses. However, those leaders who spend time to assess themselves as much as they do their organizations often go on to become immensely successful.

When we hear organizational success stories, what we are genuinely hearing is the story of the individual. Maybe, in that acknowledgement, lies resilience.

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