By Gordon Rugg
Sometimes, you know a concept, but don’t know a name for it. I’m grateful to Colin Rigby for introducing me to a name for this article’s topic, namely catastrophic success.
It’s a concept that’s been around for a long time, in fields as varied as business planning and the original Conan the Barbarian movie. It’s simple, so this will be a short article, but it’s a very powerful concept, and well worth knowing about.
The image above shows a classic project route. The project has been progressing along the line indicated by the arrow, moving towards an “okay” outcome. It has now reached the point where the actual outcome is about to emerge.
Most people have at least an adequate plan for an “okay” outcome in any significant projects that they’re undertaking. People and organisations are often less good at planning for success and failure that fall within normal bounds (i.e. that aren’t game-changing); a common strategy is to play success and failure by ear, because both of them can be hard and/or costly to plan for, since they can take many forms. People and organisations are usually very bad at planning for catastrophic, game-changing outcomes, except in a few fields which have been forced to confront them.
Catastrophic failure has been a key concept in safety-critical fields for centuries; for instance, a bridge collapses while it’s being constructed, or an aircraft engine explodes. A lot of work goes into preventing this type of failure, for good and obvious reasons.
Catastrophic success is not so well known. It involves success on such a scale that it changes the game in a direction that you’re not prepared for. In business, a classic case is a new product being wildly successful, outstripping the company’s ability to keep up with demand, and leading to consumer anger and backlash. Winning the lottery is another well recognised form.
This concept overlaps with the saying Be careful what you wish for; you might get it. The two aren’t identical, though. The saying often involves a moralistic sub-text about greed being punished, and a story line that involves a subtly different parsing of the precise wording in the wish. Catastrophic success doesn’t have that undertone. It can happen to good people and bad people alike.
So, what can you do about it?
One simple strategy is to make sure that you’ve at least thought about how to handle all five of the outcomes listed above. Even a basic, sketchy advance plan is better than no plan, if you’re suddenly hit by catastrophic success and you’re too mentally overloaded to improvise a plan.
What if you plan for catastrophic success and it doesn’t happen? Often, you can re-use that plan within other projects, or as a basis for more ambitious future projects. Also, you may well be able to use it if you’re unexpectedly hit by catastrophic success in another area.
That’s a brief description of the concept; I hope you find it useful.
Notes and links
There’s a name for the phenomenon of knowing a concept but not having a name for it; this is known in Personal Construct Theory as preverbal construing. We treat it as another form of semi-tacit knowledge.
You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.
There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:
Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese
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