20 August 2019 - When catastrophising is helpful

The Business Analysis Conference Europe 2018


Following from my earlier posts about Convergence, Creativity, Customer Focus, Continuous Learning and Empathy, this is the last of my articles focusing on the themes which were prevalent throughout the Business Analysis Europe Conference 2018, which I attended through ucisa’s bursary scheme

The rather unexpected theme that I’m going to talk about in this blog is ‘Catastrophising’. Dictionary.com defines catastrophising as “to view or talk about (an event or situation) as worse than it actually is”. A quick Google search returns a number of hits around mental health. Catastrophising in this context, particularly in the fields of mindfulness or cognitive behavioural therapy, is an unhelpful thought process in which an individual tends to assume the very worst case scenario, potentially leading to negativity, anxiety and stress.

Whilst this may be true in everyday life, both Sir Clive Woodward’s and Polar Performance’s Sophie Montagne’s talks centred on particularly extreme and highly competitive situations, where catastrophising, planning and preparing for the worst, can be the difference between winning and losing, or even life and death.

Montagne was a member of a record-breaking polar expedition team in 2018. The team, dubbed the ‘Ice Maidens’, claimed the accolades of being the first all-female team to ski the 1,700km across the Antarctic using only muscle power, the largest team of any gender to complete the challenge and the first Polar novice team. As part of the gruelling training for enduring temperatures as low as -56C, the team travelled to Norway and underwent the Norwegian Army’s Winter Survival Course. In her keynote, 'The First Female Team to Cross Antarctica’, Montagne described the terror of simulating a fall down an icy crevasse and depending entirely on her team for rescue and recovery. She also recalled with humour the section of training in which the team fully submersed themselves in a frozen plunge pool. She said that these activities not only helped to prepare them for the conditions that they would face in the Antarctica, but also gave them confidence as they had faced and overcome some of the worst possible scenarios. Montagne advises that anyone undertaking a significant project should “prepare for everything and prepare for worse than you expect to encounter. Research. Know what you’re dealing with. Catastrophise”.

From the frozen wastelands of the Antarctic, to the temperate climes of Athens. Sir Clive Woodward spoke about the Chinese Synchronised Dive Team’s performance in the 2004 Olympics to illustrate the importance of catastrophising. Despite topping the leader board and being favourites to win the event following two almost perfect dives, divers Peng Bo and Wang Kenan failed to synchronise on their final dive of the competition, scoring a zero. The American team followed suit, effectively cannonballing into the pool. During the following press conference, the divers credited their poor performance to being disrupted by an event that had occurred prior to their dives.

A spectator had evaded security to climb onto an unused diving board wearing a tutu and bearing the name of an online gambling company emblazoned across his bare chest. After diving into the pool, he was detained by security and the competition was delayed for two hours whilst various security checks were undertaken.

During this time, the Chinese and American dive teams were bustled from their poised positions on the platforms and back into the changing rooms, where their perfectly planned pre-dive routine was completely disrupted. It is perhaps understandable that their subsequent dive was under par, but Woodward argued that any sports strategy should include catastrophising for disruption to routine and mitigating against these scenarios, stating that any number of situations could have led to such a delay.

Whilst in reality few of us are faced with expeditions through frozen wastelands, or Olympic-level sports competitions, there may well be a case for employing a little catastrophising in our business lives.

In our roles as Business Analysts, we may be responsible for effecting changes that have impacts that ripple not only throughout our organisations, but that may reach our external stakeholders and wider society.

We are often asked to ‘deliver at pace’. We are busy. We operate in a constantly switched on world, a world of digital disruption and an unprecedented rate of change, where people expect quick responses, quick results and where companies need to move quickly to leverage competitive advantages and stay abreast of industry developments.

I love a good metaphor, so stay with me here. Grandparents are often a font of knowledge and wisdom and one of my Gran’s many nuggets of advice to me came in the form of the old axiom, ‘more haste, less speed’. What my Gran meant by this was, if we rush around, trying to do things as quickly as possible, we will inevitably make errors, we will become clumsy and we will miss things. As a result, we will have to do re-work, or spend time undoing our errors. We may even have to start from scratch because we’ve spoiled our first attempt.

This advice, I seem to recall, was first imparted to seven-year-old me, whilst I was busily covering the kitchen in eggs, milk and flour in a frantic rush to get all of the ingredients of a pancake mixture into the bowl as quickly as possible. In my excitement and subsequent rushing around, I had spilled some of the milk, lost at least half an egg and was wearing most of the flour. Not only did we have to re-measure the ingredients (re-work, which was more complicated and time-consuming than the original work, as we had to create part measures to compensate for the wastage), there was also a substantial clean-up operation afterwards. Had I slowed down, been more precise and considered (or been aware of) the implications of making such a mess, the process would have been smoother, the end product better quality and my stakeholders (Gran) would have been happier.

Applying this to the world of business, there can be serious repercussions associated with the pace at which we need to work. We may not feel that we have time for sufficient up-front analysis and design. We may need to get to market, without having fully understood our audiences and customers’ needs or the risks inherent in our plans. Culturally, catastrophising, or considering potential negative outputs may be considered to be ‘naysaying’ or presenting blockers. As a result we may go live with a project or launch a product that has unintended or unexpected consequences.

Adam Thilthorpe of the BCS discussed what he termed the ‘unintended impacts’ of technology. When companies develop their media and communications platforms, I think we can fairly safely assume that they are not doing so with the intention that 11-year-olds will use them to send ‘sexts’ or that their products will trigger mental health conditions in young people; these are unintended impacts of the technology they have created.

In a previous blog article I raised the question of who should – or could - be responsible for identifying, pre-empting and mitigating against such unintended and/or potentially unethical impacts of emerging technologies. I feel that as Business Analysts, we have the opportunity to do exactly this. We have the opportunity to pre-empt negative or unintended consequences through risk issue analysis. In challenging our stakeholders and scenario planning, we can introduce the ability to safely catastrophise. It is our responsibility to not work on or run projects wearing rose-tinted glasses, but to consider the worst possible outcomes and have back up plans, mitigations and contingency for these events.

We’re well-placed to challenge, to push back, to think about the wider environment and be champions of ethical change. Whilst sometimes I feel like I’m bringing the mood down, ultimately this approach allows us to develop better products, reduce post-go-live impacts (and subsequent time and resources needed to remedy these) and increase quality. In this world where no organisation is an island and our every moves are documented and visible in the public sphere, it my even serve to prevent significant reputation and PR damage.

Less haste, more speed.

This first appeared on Rachel’s blog.