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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

Image of a person with their hands up in the air, reflecting the title of "don't shoot" in relation to action research

‘Don’t shoot the messenger’.  Can we face reality?

As the Covid-19 crisis has deepened relations between politicians and their scientific advisers have become increasingly frayed. Politicians want to hear we are making progress and that the actions they are taking are being effective. They may want to highlight statistics that point in this direction. The scientists however must stay true to their data and if that says the infection rate is still too high to support some lockdown measures that is what they must advise.

Anyone who has practiced action research will recognise this dilemma. The people responsible for action want to hear that it is working and they may find it uncomfortable to hear from those responsible for the research what is actually happening on the ground. And if they don’t like the message the next step may be to ‘shoot the messenger’; perhaps to ignore what they are told, to question the competence of their researchers or even get rid of them. It is a very human characteristic. As Paul Simon wrote, ‘Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’ (The Boxer). And it may not just be a question of information about an action that is not working: it is even more difficult if the information challenges fundamental beliefs and ideologies. 

But if we are to deal effectively with a very dangerous and unfamiliar opponent like the virus we have to deal with reality not with our own favoured construction of it. If we don’t, we run the risk of having to deal with a much worse situation later.

So how can we help people take on-board information that may be difficult for them? What we don’t want is pressure on the advisers to hold back from presenting evidence for fear of their own future. They need to be given a kind of immunity, a license declared at the beginning of the process to report things as they find them. Another necessary requirement is that the people responsible for the action plans do not receive research information in any kind of public forum in which they may feel they have to defend their actions. They need a private space in which they can consider and reflect on the new information, question it as appropriate and explore its implications. The process also needs trust between colleagues and confidence in their judgement.   

Professor Ken Eason

"MiSt" book cover

Just published: A New Approach to Mindfulness: Mindful Stories – MiSt

Professor Simon Bell with his new publication. Mindful Stories: A Parable

This book provides a new and innovative approach to mindfulness using short stories. Written for individuals and for groups, the book encourages readers to examine their lives, past, present and future. The 100 stories, written in 25 quartets, ascend from the ‘Base Camp’ of self-awareness, through the various levels of the ‘Slope’, and the ‘Crest’, to the ‘Summit’ of a new personal and collective understandings.

Simon Bell. A New Approach to Mindfulness: Mindful Stories – MiSt. Cambridge Scholars, 2020. 

Mindfulness Through Fiction: A Parable is something of an introduction to MiSt. It is available to download as an e-book on Amazon. It contains 20 of the 100 stories in one single story. If you want to explore Mindful Stories, it might be a good idea to take a look at Parable first. 

We need to separate the research from the policy making

The Government process for dealing with the Covid-19 crisis has revealed many of the issues at the heart of creating an effective action research strategy. The Government is responsible for policy making and they have SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) to provide scientific and technical advice.  SAGE assesses the data on the progress of the virus, models the impact of possible actions and collates all the relevant information. The Government says it ‘follows the science’ but that is not the same as ‘we do what the scientists say’. Scientists advise but ministers decide: weighing up the trade-offs between the health risks and the economic consequences of different ways of coming out of lockdown is a burden politicians must bear.

The structure we have at Government level mirrors the separation between the research phase and the action phase in action research. This is a necessary separation so we get evidence that is as objective as possible.

Any organisation seeking to use an action research strategy to find their way out of lockdown will need to separate the responsibilities for planning and action (the policy making) from the responsibilities for research (the gathering and processing of the evidence). In a large organisation this separation of function may be relatively straightforward: the senior management may determine the action steps and staff from functions such as information analysis, business analysis, Human Resources and Health and Safety may undertake the research. It is also possible that a separate organisation, such as ourselves, takes responsibility for the research and evaluation functions in the action research cycle.

But in a small organisation there may be no pre-existing separations of role to make use of. If this is the case it can be useful to give somebody a specific responsibility for gathering the evidence to underpin the debate about the next action steps.

How well this separation will work in practice will depend upon the level of trust between members of the organisation and the degree of openness that people display to the evidence that is gathered. This is a topic we will attend to in the next post.

Professor Ken Eason

Covid-19: How will we know how well we are doing?

The Government mantra is ‘our actions follow the science’. The scientists collect evidence of how the virus is spreading in order to give the politicians the advice they seek. But what evidence to collect?  And how long is the lag before you know whether actions taken are being effective? 

Problems about gathering the evidence have bedeviled our national response to Covid-19, so much so that our strategy has been likened to ‘driving blind’. These same issues will confront every organisation that is trying to find its way out of lockdown, albeit on a more local scale. If careful steps are being taken to get going again, how can we avoid ‘ driving blind’? If the aim is to scale up business activity without endangering staff and customers, what evidence can be collected to show the plans are working?  The obvious hard data includes the number of staff, customers etc who test positive and the number of customers prepared to come through the doors. The Government test and trace system is gradually providing more local data but there have been lags in getting information that is sufficiently detailed to be useful.  

There are, however, lots of other indicators that may provide more immediate and useful feedback. In action research every new action phase has specific aims and we need ways of measuring whether these aims are being achieved. If the aim is to create safe workplaces for staff, regular surveys are needed to assess how staff are feeling. Ideally there should also be opportunities to discuss specific problems and these can be addressed in the next action phase. Similarly, as shops, pubs and restaurants re-open there will be a crude measure of how many customers arrive but, if the response in slow, more effort needs to be put into discovering why and what can be done to give people more confidence that they will be safe. As schools re-open ways are needed to assess whether children and their parents feel confident about the measures taken and opportunities need to be created to discuss any concerns they may have.  

The basic message is that if you are going to take ‘baby steps’ into the unknown you have to have measures in place to warn you if you are about to fall down the stairs.

Professor Ken Eason

Top-down or bottom-up: who makes the decisions in a pandemic?

We live in a blizzard of regulations, requirements, guidance and advice that changes regularly as the Government tries to find ways of guiding us out of lockdown. People crave clarity so they know exactly what to do but in reality there are so many different circumstances that we must all to some extent find our own way forward. For companies, how we solve the riddle of getting back to viable business activity whilst at the same time protecting staff, customers and everybody else, is going to be largely a matter of making local decisions.  We will all have to take our own ‘baby steps’, review the implications and gradually in an iterative way find our own ‘new normal’. Government may be treating getting us out of lockdown as a top-down decision making process but there will be a lot of bottom-up decisions to be taken as well.

So how can we prepare for the bottom-up process?  Here are four action research suggestions:

Set up a task force to ‘design’ the new way of working and monitor how well it is achieving its purpose

Work out what is a regulation that is enforceable by law and what is advice or guidance. This will define the discretion the task force has to create ways of working that meet local needs. Schools may have to abide by the social distancing regulations, for example, but they may be able to decide for themselves whether children come back full time or part-time, what spaces they can press into service for teaching, how to manage lunchtimes and playtimes and so on.

Be clear what the new system is expected to achieve and measure whether it is being achieved. Are people able to work following the social-distancing rules and face-mask wearing or do further adjustments need to be made? Above all are customers confident they are safe and are they willing to follow the procedures that have been set up?

Make regular reviews and be ready to change. The results of internal ‘research’ may suggest changes but there may also be outside changes. Government may change the regulations and create new restrictions or opportunities. Mandatory face-masks today: who knows what tomorrow.

Agility and invention will be needed.  There are plenty of examples of how organisations are adapting that can be our inspiration.

Professor Ken Eason

Coming out of lockdown we are all action researchers now

Across the world nations are struggling to find their way back to some kind of ‘new normal’. But they cannot do it by announcing a grand plan and then implementing it. They are dealing with an unpredictable opponent: they don’t know how we the public or the virus will respond as they lift restrictions. So from the UK Government we hear that the ‘road map’ is to take ‘baby steps’, review what happens and move forward when we can without causing a new ‘spike’. 

We are told we are in uncharted territory and we are not used to planning this way. And yet we have had a well-developed methodology for managing change in this way for nearly 100 years. Action Research was developed by Kurt Lewin in the 1920s as a way of dealing with change in circumstances where the complex system being changed is unpredictable. Over the past century many forms of action research have been developed but at their heart is a four-stage action research cycle: plan, act, research (observe, study the results) and reflect. 

First you create a plan to achieve a goal and then you take the first actions to implement the plan. Then, before taking the next step, you undertake research to see what the results of your actions have been. You then reflect on what has been achieved and plan the next actions accordingly. This becomes an iterative process, moving through a series of action research cycles so that over time a flexible plan is implemented that deals with the complexities of the real world as they become apparent. 

For the past 30 years the Bayswater Institute has been helping clients of all kinds manage change processes by using action research. This is particularly pertinent now because as the UK government adopts its own version of action research, knowingly or not, so organisations of all kinds are going to have to adopt some form of action research as they try to come out of lockdown and resume a form of normal activity. 

Our aim it to use our experience of action research to help organisations adopt this approach to planning. The next posts will be on different aspects of following an action research approach. If you want help with any aspect of the approach please let us know and we will build it into future posts.

Professor Ken Eason

‘Mindfulness through Fiction’ stories are now available as an e-book

Mindfulness through Fiction: A Parable – e-book now Available on Amazon

Featuring the stories used in our Mindfulness Zoom classes.

Using fiction to explore mindful reflection. A best friend never met, a mysterious journey half begun, a solution unseen in the brightest light, a shadowy creation creating itself, these are some of the fictions used in Parable.
This novella is about the braiding of reality and fiction. It makes use of short stories containing subliminal prompts, arranged in quartets.
‘Mindfulness through Fiction: A Parable’ takes the reader on a journey of five contexts: Me, my world, my shared world, my group and finally; beyond me.
The prompts contained in the fictions are intended to act as means to nudge individuals and groups, lay readers and practitioners to consider their role, experience and ideas in the contexts of the five quartets.
The book helps us to find reflective space in our lives by means of fictions.

MasterClass in SocioTechnical Systems & the Imagine Method

Congratulations to these Delegates who attended the Bayswater Institute MasterClass in SocioTechnical Systems and the Imagine Method.

New – The Mindful Stories Workshop

In solitude or with others, some things are too difficult to be dealt with directly. Sometimes we need to find a way to address underlying issues by circuitous means. My starting point is two-fold. It can be summed up by the two following sentences:
We are needful of harmony with each other.
We are needful of peace with ourselves.

    • By ‘needful of harmony with each other’ I refer to the quality of the relationship we have with the others who come into and move out of our lives.
    • By “needful of peace with ourselves” I refer to the quality of our self-knowing.
    • By use of the Mindful Stories you and your team can address issues which are often beyond easy solution.