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Cautious Optimism: The oxymoron of Success

  • Mar 18 / 2016
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Cautious Optimism: The oxymoron of Success

Experts are telling us that Optimism is a major, if not the most important, ingredient in the secret sauce of success. The ability to look at a difficulty as an opportunity for problem-solving, rather than viewing it as due to a personal flaw that cannot be corrected, is an important trait in those who transform setbacks into platforms on which to showcase turnaround capabilities. Yet we know of missions that unraveled because an overzealous generalissimo failed to read the risks adequately. This is especially true in the high-tech industry where not recognizing early the inroads made by competition is ignorance at one’s peril.

The success-time curve of a mission typically has a sinuous beginning, often nose-diving after the initial surge. Optimism helps in making those course-corrections that are necessary for the falling curve to pick up again, eventually leading to success. When optimism is missing, the ball gets dropped, and the mission fails. So, it can be seen that springing up from setbacks is a dominant capability in the winners. At the same time, an excessive bout of optimism can make one insensitive to the winds of change. Retaining the swagger even whilst being buffeted by the headwind is not the same as staying cool in the face of adversity. A winner has to recognize the signals before the wind is out of the sails, and the ship has begun to sink. The ancient philosopher Adi Shankara used a four-pronged method to interpret complex scriptures. The method was so effective that no one could ever vanquish him in a debate on the Vedanta. Let us see how this method and an analogy can be useful for analyzing scenarios and interpreting complex information:

  • Knowledge: Knowledge should not be from a single source. There are different layers to reality, all of which could be true in certain contexts. Therefore, knowing and reading a situation from different perspectives help in getting a better cover for the risks.
  • Reasoning: But which source of information should be relied on the most then? It is the one that you can validate with actual experiences; the one that can stand the test of reason.
  • Experiential Knowledge: This is the knowledge that we acquire with our experiences, and it forms our internal memory. Such internal repositories get built up primarily from our experiences out of the comfort zone. That’s why people who did challenging assignments, such as a stint abroad in a new culture, tend to handle complex situations well. They do so by testing things in the light of such knowledge.
  • Expertise: Some things look the same on paper. Apply all available yardsticks, and yet they appear identical in performance. But only the expert knows that the actual performance is different for different things, though she may not be able to lay a finger on the cause for the variation. This is not necessarily a failure of theory, it could well be a limitation of existing knowledge. That’s why the input of the experts becomes crucial in deciphering a complexity.

Root-causes can be quite contrary to perceptions. The dynamics at the micro level can be completely different from what appear on the surface. As consultants, we have seen that when people apply the above four aspects in interpreting new dynamics, results are along desired lines. Optimism is essential during execution. But cautious optimism is necessary before drawing up the plans.


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