Unintended Consequences

By Sonia Tallarida

Recently, I was attending a three-day conference a beautiful venue in Sydney, owned by the Salvation Army. It was a excellent conference that was naturally an ‘alcohol free event’, which was totally understandable considering one of the core reasons behind the establishment of the Salvation Army’s was to stop drinking.

However a funny thing happened. After a very quick dinner, the common areas were promptly closed. I’m guessing the reasoning behind this was to discourage people from congregating in the common areas over a drink or two, as they usually would after dinner at a conference.

The unintended consequences of the closure of the common areas were both interesting and amusing to me. In order to keep the conversations going and keep working together on the day’s outcomes, people needed a place to come together. Given the size of the group hanging out in someone’s hotel rooms was not an option. So the entire group made their way down to the end of the street and into…the pub!

Yep! The pub was the ONLY place we could find where it was acceptable for a crowd of people to suddenly congregate and continue their discussions into the evening. Naturally, people drank. In fact, the visit to the pub fast became a nightly occurrence, and people drank every night. However, a quick poll of the group showed that the majority of people weren’t (usually) “every night ” drinkers.

This often happens in organisations, as well. We often introduce a new policy or approach intending to alter behaviours, in order to achieve a specific outcome. But, have we really considered how people will interact with it? Have we considered what else might change apart from the behaviour we’re targeted?

This is where experimenting with users’ responses to new innovations or strategies, in a fail proof environment, can give you confidence that changes your planning to make will result in the consequences you’ve intended …

Here’s an easy way to check if the change you make will have the right impact:

1) Observe
Watch what your team do when they currently interact with the system, approach or structure you are planning to change.
What insights can you get about how they are using it in unexpected ways?

2) Identify
Identify the key elements of the change and break it into small chunks.
Let’s say you wanted to change people’s behaviour to be more aware of waste they create, or to reuse existing resources instead of spending or asking for more capital. The first chunk here is to identify whether people would be willing to reuse existing resources, and what would their response be if asked to do that.

3) Experiment
Make up a small experiment to test the behaviour of your team before you actually make the change.
For example, put up a sign at coffee machine and ask people to use crockery mugs instead of disposables, reminding them where the dishwasher is. This helps you to test how people respond when faced with the choice of “new” or “reuse” in a simple, quick and cost effective way.

4) Observe
Watch… what happens? what surprises you? Check for insights.
For example: You may notice that people use the new mugs but they aren’t cleaning them for re-use. Whose job is that? Will the cleaners do it? No! instead, the cleaner gets cross; she puts away all the mugs and takes down your sign – and you uncover a stakeholder you never knew existed!

What we can learn here is that reuse of existing materials in this environment will impact invisible stakeholders – in developing our plan we need to include a method to make the change stick which includes the downstream impacts of reusing materials on the people who will need to maintain them.

5) Take and Tinker
Take away the insights you’ve gathered and tinker with your planned change . Experiment again on another aspect of change.

Change sticks when we are prepared to test the behaviours that sits around the change, and when we allow ourselves to be prepared for unexpected consequences!


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