Unforeseen consequences – an unexpected sequel to my previous post
Introduction – a dilemma resolved?
Last week I published a post about how a friend and I used the Issue-based Information System (IBIS) notation to map out a dilemma he was facing – whether to accept or decline a job offer. The final map of that discussion is reproduced in Figure 1 below.
The map illustrates how we analysed the pros and cons of the options before him.
As I’d mentioned in the post, a couple of days after we did the map, he called to tell me that he had accepted the offer. I was pleased that it had worked out for him and was pretty sure that the dilemma was essentially resolved: he’d accepted the job, so that was that.
..or so I thought.
An unforeseen consequence
Last Saturday I happened to meet him again. Naturally, I asked him how things were going – how his current employer had reacted to his resignation etc.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “After he heard that I had resigned, the CEO (who is many levels above me in the org chart) asked to see me immediately.”
“Wow!” I couldn’t help interjecting.
“…Yeah. So, I met him and we had a chat. He told me that management had me marked for a role at a sister organization, at a much higher level than I am at now. So he asked me to hold off for a day or two, until I’d heard what was on offer. When I told him I’d signed the contract already, he said that I should hear what they had to say anyway.”
Wow, indeed – we couldn’t have anticipated this scenario… or could we?
An expert’s observations
- The options explored in the map (accept/decline) are in fact the same point – one is simply the negation of the other. So this should be represented as a single option (either accept or decline), with the pros arguing for the represented option and the cons arguing for the unrepresented one.
- Options other than the obvious one (accept or decline) should have been explored.
In my response I pointed out that although representing the two options as separate points causes redundancies, it can help participants “see” arguments that may not be obvious immediately. One is drawn to consider each of the actions separately because they are both represented as distinct options, each with their own consequences (I’ll say more about this later in this post). The downside, as Tim mentions, is more clutter and superfluity. This is not necessarily a problem for small maps but can be an issue in larger ones.
However, it is the second point that is more relevant here. In my response to Tim’s comment I stated:
For completeness we ought to have explored options other than the two (one?) that we did, and had we more time we may have done so. That said, my mate viewed this very much as an accept/decline dilemma (precluding other options) because he had only a day to make a decision.
Clearly, in view of what happened, my argument about not having enough time is a complete cop out: we should have made the time to explore the options because it is precisely what had come back to bite us.
Choice and consequence
In hindsight it’s all very well to say that we could have done this or should have done that. The question is: how could we have given ourselves the best possible chance to have foreseen the eventuality that occurred (and others ones that didn’t)?
One way to do this is to explore other ideas in response to the root question: what should I do? (see Figure1). However, it can be difficult for the person(s) facing the dilemma to come up with new ideas when one option looms so much larger than all others. It is the facilitator’s job to help the group come up with options when this happens, and I had clearly failed on this count.
Sure, it can be difficult to come up with options out of the blue – especially when one is not familiar with the context and background of the problem. This highlights the importance of getting a feel for things before the discussion starts. In this case, I should have probed my friends current work situation, how he was regarded at his workplace and his motivations for moving before starting with the map. However, even had I done so, it is moot whether we would have foreseen the particular consequence that occurred.
So, is there any way to get participants thinking about consequences of their choices? Remember, in IBIS one “evaluates” an idea in terms of its pros and cons. Such an analysis may not include consequences .
In my opinion, the best way to get folks thinking about consequences is to ask the question explicitly: “What are the consequences of this idea/option?”
Figure 2 illustrates how this might have worked in the case of my friend’s dilemma. Had we brainstormed the consequences of accepting, he may well have come up with the possibility that actually eventuated.
The branch highlighted in yellow shows how we might have explored the consequences of accepting the job. For each consequence one could then consider how one might respond to it. The exploration of responses could be done on the same map or hived off into its own map as I’ve shown in the figure. Note that clicking on a map node in Compendium (the free software tool used to create IBIS maps) simply opens up a new map. Such sub-maps offer a convenient way to organise complex discussions into relatively self-contained subtopics.
I emphasise that the above is largely a reframing of pros and cons: all the listed consequences can be viewed as pros or cons (depending on whether the consequence is perceived as a negative or a positive one). However asking for consequences explicitly prompts participants to think in terms of what could happen, not just known pros and cons.
Of course, there is no guarantee that this process would have enabled us to foresee the situation that actually occurred. This deceptively simple dilemma is indeed wicked.
On Sunday I happened to re-read Rittel and Webber’s classic paper on wicked problems. In view of what had occurred, it isn’t surprising that the following lines in the paper had a particular resonance:
With wicked problems…. any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended–virtually an unbounded– period of time. Moreover, the next day’s consequences of the solution may yield utterly undesirable repercussions which outweigh the intended advantages or the advantages accomplished hitherto. In such cases, one would have been better off if the plan had never been carried out.
The full consequences cannot be appraised until the waves of repercussions have completely run out, and we have no way of tracing all the waves through all the affected lives ahead of time or within a limited time span.
I can’t hope to put it any better than that.