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The Law of Unexpected Consequences –
Download our guide to spotting knock-on effects

Th The law of unexpected consequences

Government actions to combat the coronavirus keep having unexpected consequences: students returning to University spread the virus, an examination algorithm leads to school children from disadvantaged backgrounds having their grades downgraded, and closing bars at 10 pm leads to people not socially distancing in the streets.  

We should not be surprised about these unexpected consequences because it is a well-recognized systems phenomenon. When you make a change in one part of a system it has knock-on effects elsewhere and some of them may be disadvantageous to what you are trying to achieve. And in all the examples we are now seeing, changes are being made that impact wider systems whether it is the existing educational system or the night-time leisure social ‘systems’ of our towns and cities.

Why do we not identify these consequences when we are planning a change? They always seem so obvious after the event. Part of the answer is that when we are planning a change we are usually focused on the change itself and we are probably under time and resource pressure to deliver it. There may not be much time to lift the blinkers and look for wider implications. And it is possible we don’t want to know: we may have enough trouble planning the change without looking for things that may or may not happen.

But this is a shortsighted and potentially disastrous strategy: it might jeopardise the whole venture. Spotting potential problems early means there is an opportunity to find ways of avoiding them.

This is a systems analysis problem and there are ways of spotting potential implications before anything is implemented. In one of our current projects, (the WORKTECC project lead by the CORU, the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London), we have developed a framework for the systematic search for implications of a change programme which is based on sociotechnical systems theory. It is designed to search for implications in a work system. The framework is here as a free resource:

We have often helped project teams work through this process but this framework is designed for people to use for themselves. If you are concerned about the implications of a change you are engaged with, please try it. And please provide us with some feedback so that we can go on refining it.  

Professor Ken Eason