Unintended Consequences

Posted on Wednesday, March 18th, 2020

There was a story today on NPR about how the practice of “social distancing” was adversely affecting the nation’s blood supply. One might not go to a mobile donation site or even a blood donation center if one was practicing social distancing and knew from experience that beds were possibly closer than six feet to each other. And yet, blood donations are constantly needed.

This is an example of an unintended consequence emerging from an intervention (action taken) to change a complex system. One of the Habits of a Systems Thinker is to “consider short-term, long-term and unintended consequences of actions.”

Often, when we feel the pressure to not “just stand there, do something,” we take an action to relieve short-term discomfort. Often these actions are appropriate and necessary. And, just as often, we take the action and neglect to pause and think about longer-term impacts or impacts that we in no way intend to be an outcome of our action.

We might identify a longer-term impact that is both undesirable and able to be mitigated. (Certainly the impact on the blood collection system could have been mitigated with timely communication about how donors would be protected). We might identify a longer-term impact that is so undesirable that we reconsider whether to take the original intervention, or we find a way to modify the action so that the undesirable longer-term outcome is less likely. It’s important when intervening in a complex system to ask what else might be affected by our action. This is a leadership question.

We can also speculate about possible unintended consequences from our action or decision. Inviting this inquiry is also an act of leadership. We might identify some possibilities, or we might not. The point about complex (human!) systems and unintended consequences is that any intervention will cause unintended consequences. The effect will likely be well separated from the “cause” over time or space (across an organization or community). Thus, when an unintended consequence does emerge, we often don’t connect it back to our well-intended intervention.

It’s hard to speculate about unintended consequences because we just cannot see all the possible interactions among the parts of a complex system over time. The key thing about at least speculating is that we acknowledge that there could be unintended consequences from this thing we’re about to do. Therefore, when some unintended and undesirable consequence does emerge, we are better able to stay curious about what is happening rather than immediately look for someone to blame.

A systems perspective is an important characteristic of a humane workplace.