How Do We Plan for Both Cascading Effects and Catastrophic Success?

CAL Newsletter: How Do We Plan for Both Cascading Effects and Catastrophic Success?

I learned new words this week for events I’ve seen many times: catastrophic effects and catastrophic success.

I’m sure you’ve experienced catastrophic failure. Here’s an example that’s happened to me too often over my career: a disk drive fails, taking all my data with it. I now use continual onsite and cloud backup. That failure won’t happen to me again.

However, we also might experience catastrophic effects. For example, years ago, when I spoke at in-person conferences, I had to be careful where I walked and stood in relation to the speaker. Too close to the speaker, and the microphone and speaker amplified each other and created screeching feedback. Until I moved, the screeching continued.

The screech is the cascading effect—a positive or reinforcing—feedback loop. I noticed it (the triggering event) as horrible noise.

In software, we see cascading defects all too often. We might not know about a problem or we choose not to fix it. Then, we realize we have a problem (the triggering event). When we finally get to fixing, we realize that fixing that defect has unmasked many other problems. So while we think we’re making the product better, we make the product much less stable—until we fix all the uncovered problems.

Again, we have a trigger (noticing a problem) and a reinforcing loop at work. Fixing one defect exposes more problems.

While we might not anticipate these kinds of problems, we can learn to catch them and fix them. We need to see the trigger—the event—that causes the reinforcing feedback loop.

Most of us have built planning or detecting mechanisms to detect triggers and their catastrophic effects. Then there’s the issue of success.

What About Catastrophic Success?

Success can turn catastrophic, also. That occurs when we succeed past our wildest expectations. We need some capacity to deal with success. If we succeed past that capacity, we fail.

Let’s imagine you win the lottery and can receive a lump sum of some unimaginably large number. Do you have the capacity to handle that windfall? If not, that’s a catastrophic success.

Companies can have problems with catastrophic success, too. They release a product or service that takes off in the market. They didn’t plan on that much success—and now they don’t have the infrastructure to maintain their position.

I don’t play the lottery, so I’ll never receive that particular trigger. However, I’ve worked with clients who could not scale their internal processes when their products took off in the marketplace. The clients hadn’t planned for that much success.

We can sometimes prepare or plan for these various catastrophes by observing triggers and recognizing reinforcing loops.

What Reality Do You See?

We can see (or hear) some triggers immediately, such as the audio feedback from the speaker or winning the lottery. Some triggers take more time, as in the cascading defects problem.

Even if we don’t see the trigger right away, we can look for reinforcing feedback loops:

  • Is there an event that continues to occur without any intervention, especially human?
  • Is the system (including me) at or over the capacity limits? (Think WIP, Work in Progress)

We always have reinforcing loops. However, the more we can expose them, the more we can think about the possibilities of catastrophic effects or success. We can consider heuristics or guidelines to help us see the loops, and therefore, the system.

All of that means we need to reinforce our adaptability.

Reinforcing Loops Require Adaptability

Life, work—anything—rarely goes according to plan. That means we need more adaptability. We can practice our adaptability by first seeing our reality. Then, either testing the system or taking a small step to stop the reinforcing loop. That test or step might help break the feedback and offer us other options to continue.

As long as we prevent catastrophic failure, we can recover from catastrophic effects and success. To be honest, I find it a lot easier to recover from success. I suspect you do, too.

This newsletter’s question of the month is: How do we plan for both cascading effects and catastrophic success?


I opened the Q4 writing workshop for registration. See Free Your Inner Writer & Sell Your Nonfiction Ideas.


Read More of Create an Adaptable Life

If you only read the newsletter, I hope you also read the blog where I write a question of the week each week. Here are other links you might find useful:

Till next time,


© 2021 Johanna Rothman

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