My grandmother did not like surprises. As a child, I didn’t understand this, because surprises are fun! As I grew up I’ve adopted my grandmother’s point of view, because not all surprises are fun. So I’ve honed my planning skills. I’ll bet you have too. The end of this year is next year’s planning time: business plans, advertising campaigns, social media strategy. We’re ardently practicing those skills right now.
There’s an unseen member of your planning team
No matter how good we are at planning, the werewolf is always lurking in the background. Some of you may know this wolf as “Murphy’s Law”; others may know it as “the law of unintended consequences.” This werewolf’s camouflage is nearly perfect. Planning activities—brainstorming, drafting, rewriting, conferencing, meetings, and frank discussions over drinks—all fail to reveal the wolf to us. Planning forces us to focus on what we intend to do: bump sales by 5% next quarter; cut costs by 10% over the year; update the blog every week. The werewolf, though, hangs out in the places where our good intentions intersect and cause effects we didn’t foresee. Yes, you cut your costs this year by 10%, but the reduction in force you used to help achieve that goal meant that you let go of several of your inside sales force. The resulting reshuffling of customers among the remaining salespeople slowed down order processing. Your fourth largest customer, practicing just in time inventory, couldn’t live with the delay and jumped to your largest competitor. The werewolf strikes!
The werewolf was spotted in Gardner, Kansas
Recently, the Gardner, Kansas police department actually caught the werewolf on film! Concerned by reports of a mountain lion possibly seen in Celebration Park, they set up two wildlife cameras to provide some evidence of the big cat. While they didn’t find the cougar, they did see the anticipated skunks, raccoons, and coyotes.
What they didn’t expect, though, were the weird creatures that showed up, causing the police department a new concern: figuring out what these creatures were doing in the park. Among the creatures caught on film were two wrestling gorillas, Santa Claus, something nameless, and even our friend, the unintended werewolf.
Unintended consequences are rarely in our minds as we go about planning for the future. Awareness of the werewolf is a start in dealing with it. The folks at Better Evaluation in the UK (https://betterevaluation.org) have five recommended options for identifying potential unintended consequences:
- Key informant interviews: asking experienced people to identify possible negative impacts, based on their experience with similar programs. Program critics can be especially useful.
- Negative programme theory: identifying ways in which program activities might produce negative impacts rather than their intended impacts.
- Risk assessment: identifying the potential negative impacts, their likelihood of occurring and how they might be avoided.
- Six Hats Thinking about unintended results: promoting holistic and lateral thinking in decision-making and evaluation.
- Unusual events reporting: making sure that unforseen [sic] events, incidents or outcomes are recorded.
(https://betterevaluation.org/en/plan/define/identify_potential_unintended_results accessed 12/06/2016)
As you finalize your plans for next year, give some thought to the unintended werewolf. It could make your year that much better.
Images courtesy of the city of Gardner, KS. Used by permission.