Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Unforeseen consequences – an unexpected sequel to my previous post

with 4 comments

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.

Figure 1: Final map from previous post

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

In a comment on that post Tim van Gelder makes two important points:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Figure 2: Exploring consequences (branch highlighted in yellow

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.

Written by K

August 20, 2010 at 5:50 am

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. So, does the last paragraph tell us to ‘flip a coin’, cause you don’t know what’s going to happen anyway?

    When we’re playing a game with incomplete/imperfect information, we (usually tacitly) apply probabilistic weightings to the options (Note: We are generally very bad at this).

    The chances that our bosses are going to come back with a fantastic counter-offer are usually pretty low (and, even if you take it, there may be something irrevocably broken in your future relationship). Can you take this low-likelihood possibility into account when evaluating “stay or go”? You could (and to be prepared for ‘shocks’, you should). But it’s unlikely to affect the choice by much.

    The real moral is: If you have a really good employee, let them know that you like them and that you’ve got plans for them *before* they jump ship.


    Ruven Gotz

    August 20, 2010 at 1:35 pm

  2. Ruven,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The last paragraph is just me getting carried away by Rittel’s rhetoric 🙂

    You’re right – there is no way of foreseeing low probability events in general. However, although low probability consequences may not affect one’s decisions, they can open up other possible options for consideration. The “counter-offer scenario” would likely have come up as a possible consequence had I known that my friend is highly regarded at his workplace. We may then have considered “negotiate a better deal” as another option. My point is that exploring consequences in an explicit way (as shown in Figure 2) is something that’s worth doing on decisions that matter.

    I guess one could say there are a couple of morals here, depending on one’s perspective. For employers it’s the one you mention. For employees, it is to explore options and their consequences as thoroughly as possible.





    August 20, 2010 at 5:02 pm

  3. Hmm, I don’t know how you could have captured the unforseen circumstance. To me the map represents a dialogue map, the internal dialogue your friend has when he makes decisions. When he spoke to his manager about his decision he was basically inviting someone else to the conversation.

    If the context for creating the map changed, say there wasn’t a job on offer but your friend was planning his career trajectory, then moving up through his current employer would definitely have been on the map.



    April 22, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    • You’re right, the map does indeed represent the internal dialogue my friend had when he was considering his options. However, as Tim van Gelder, mentions in his comment on the original post, “the open question (‘what should I do?’) invites other kinds of responses, e.g. seek a third offer, bargain for better offer from current employer, etc.” Exploring other responses to the open question could have lead us to considering scenarios similar to the one that eventuated. Even if it didn’t, the exercise would probably have opened up other options for him to consider.





      April 23, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: