Blog · Apr 6, 2017

Don’t ask ‘What’s Wrong?’ ask ‘What’s Possible?’

Dr. Cath Bishop is a World Champion, Olympic Silver Medallist and former International Diplomat. Cath now works as a leadership speaker, consultant and facilitator for Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? drawing on her practical experience from two high pressure careers as an Olympic rower and a senior diplomat specialising in conflict stabilisation.


Athletes do it repeatedly and instinctively – How did we race? What did we do well? What could we have done better? What have we learnt? What will we do differently next time? Performance reviews were a major part of Ben’s journey to an Olympic Gold medal in Sydney, and my own journey to an Olympic Silver Medal in Athens, and form a key part of any of the facilitation, performance programmes or keynotes that we give at ‘Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?’ It’s a simple but essential tool of high performers in the sporting world and yet rarely seen as regularly and instinctively in the organisational world. It’s a sporting practice that is being reinforced as a proven factor in high performance through the emerging research insights from leadership theory, behavioural psychology and neuroscience.

Is there an alternative outcome?

New research on ‘counterfactual thinking’ – literally imagining alternatives – gives us even greater help and specific tips on how we can further optimise that review process, avoid any negative ruminating that leads nowhere, and gives us some tips on how to best use the review process to improve performance. Rather than dwelling on what you might have done wrong and getting sucked into the trap of blaming yourself or others, the research suggests a different line of thinking: think of a better alternative outcome and what you might have done differently; then think of another alternative outcome and again the sorts of thing you might have done differently. Then think of how a different outcome might have come from what you actually did – because there is always a lot of good in what you have done, and sometimes outcomes are random or depend on a range of factors that could change around you.

Our Olympic coaches and psychologist always used to ensure we talked about what we did right in an international rowing race that we lost, the things we needed to keep doing to win next time, and not just focus solely on the things we thought we needed to change and improve. As part of everything we do with clients at Will it Make the Boat Go Faster? we ensure that we look at what we’ve done well as well as what can be improved.

Get Curious About The Recipe

Ben’s story specifically delves into the importance of curiosity and considering all the variables that affect performance – ‘Get Curious About The Recipe’ is one of the mantras used at Will It Make the Boat Go Faster? to help tighten up the performance process, i.e. all the things that need to be done in order to get a great result. Too often, the performance process and results are conflated within organisations, but if we can separate out our focus on the process, then we stand the best chance of getting a great outcome. No gold medal winners spend their final race or matches focusing on the gold medal – they focus on what they need to do in order to put them in the best position to win that gold medal.

The latest research on ‘counterfactual thinking’ now also suggests it can be helpful to imagine a worse outcome when reviewing things – i.e. things could actually have ended up in an even worse way, and it’s an important part of maintaining perspective and balance in your outlook to consider that for a moment too. That feels a little counter-intuitive, we often steer away from consciously considering negatives, but you can see that maintaining perspective under pressure is a crucial skill for leaders and high performers – so anything that improves perspective and balance should be welcomed into our approach.

Having a simple structure for the review process is an easy but important way of ensuring that reviewing your performance is as effective as possible, avoids blame, bias and other mental ruts we can get stuck in, and ensures that you don’t see an oversimplified picture of ‘failure’ but understand the good and the bad in any under performance. Perhaps, most importantly, it keeps you stretching your mind to imagine ‘what’s possible?’.

I was once advised, don’t ask ‘what’s wrong?’ Ask ‘what’s possible?’ The research and the Will It Make the Boat Go Faster? strategies underline the value of that as a regular way of thinking for leaders.


To find out more about Cath as a motivational speaker click here.

For more insights into improving performance pick up a copy of Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?

Go Back to Insights