Unintended consequences (say what you mean)

Post-it, sketched December 2020

The word “unintended consequences” gets tossed around a lot in development and social sector work–often as a glib euphemism for “bad stuff we didn’t expect” or a “better call qual” moment.

However, many “unintended consequences” are indeed anticipate-able, especially with grounding in theory (+theory of change), the literature, and the context. It is the job of the program design and research teams to consider ways in which a program could lead to undesirable outcomes (those not consistent with social impact, progress) and to mitigate them (in the program) and capture them (in the research). It is not necessarily helpful to give all ‘bad’ outcomes the same label, especially an ‘oopsie-daisy, we didn’t mean for that to happen!’ label!

To walk quickly through my post-it:

  • NW quadrant: these are things that are ‘good’ and often the targets of the program or foreseeable good knock-on effects. These are often measured, celebrated.
  • NE quadrant: these may tie-in with positive deviance. It can be useful to capture these outcomes and, so, even in the context of quant/closed-ended research, may want to have an open-ended question that asks if an experience or intervention brought about any other things that the respondent deems ‘good.’ Too often, these outcomes are captured and celebrated idiosyncratically and anecdotally when they could have been captured systematically with a little thought.
  • SW quadrant: too often things that get the ‘unintended consequences’ label fall in this box, even though they are often quite foreseeable. They should be programmatically measured and captured as part of the monitoring, measurement, decision-making plan.
  • SE quadtrant: Of course, some ‘bad’ things will happen that are not foreseeable even with a reasonable amount of thought and hindsight will always be 20/20 while foresight is not. Similar to the NE quadrant, it is easy enough to include one open-ended question about things that were challenging or bad. It may be the work of deeper, richer qualitative work to investigate this more if the issues are surfaced but one open-ended question on that matter will go a long way to more systematically understanding problems and harms.

Share your thoughts, please! The more minds, the merrier

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