Avoiding the Spiral

30 May

I recently completed the analysis of around 50 interviews with people who had been experiencing mental health difficulties. There was a common thread which connected almost all the respondents-the respondent had encountered a shock or set back and then begun to spiral. In this article I’ll describe what the spiral is and how this personal issue is in fact a fractal; it affects the decision making and risk management of groups, communities and organisations. I’ll focus this article on the notion of spiralling and how it is relevant to organisations.

The common thread within the interviews was the response of spiralling to shock. The spiral occurs when a naturally defensive position is taken in response to a threat. The person affected begins to withdraw and disengage from their life, activities become abandoned, and friends’ phone calls go unreturned. The person attempts to mitigate against risk by shrinking their life into a more manageable size, but this is an illusion. This desire for defensive control locks the person into a spiral as their world becomes smaller and smaller. Paradoxically this then exposes the person to even greater risks as even the smallest daily event becomes perceived as a threat. Coping mechanisms erode along with the ability to adapt and improvise. Respondents in the interviews who had reached the bottom of the spiral frequently talked of “wanting their life back” and wishing to rebuild their confidence. The spiral is a draining devastating experience.

Expressed in basic terms, the spiral is essentially the moving from a broad frame to a narrow frame-the reduction of options, and the ability to plot a future, stemming from the exaggeration of a naturally defensive response to an unexpected event. The same thing can happen to an organisation when it encounters a shock. A panic can ripple through the organisation and people begin to feel besieged by threats, particularly if the shadow of blame hangs overhead. Teams and departments pull to centralise in this environment, reducing tasks to the basics, the activities over which they have total control. The result is expertise and improvisation becomes seen as risky and consequently quality of service falls. This is a risk paradox-defensive positions to avoid risk reduce initiative, and this reduction in initiative blunts error detection, thereby increasing risk. The organisation adopts a defensive strategy and as Sir Lawrence Freedman observes, when the strategy is to dig in, sooner or later it will be overrun. You cannot afford to stay at the bottom of the spiral for too long.

How can the spiral be avoided? Essentially by keeping the frame broad in the face of shocks, within an organisation this can be achieved through resilience training. Individuals and teams should practice exercises where their routine is blown apart by the unexpected and are required to improvise. Developing successful improvisations through training can help maintain confidence when the unexpected happens-it can also help foster innovation. This develops the associative memory, both individually and organisationally, by developing a mental warehouse of coping strategies which can be drawn from when the daily routine comes completely off the rails- which at some point, it will.

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