The Future is Chock Full of Unintended Consequences


Blackboard with chalked written phrase, Unintended Consequences, that doesn't quite fit on the lines
Unintended Consequences


“We can control our choices, but we can’t control the consequences of those choices”
-Many authors in many contexts

Because strategies are often chosen in crisis, then frozen in policy, mission-related stories, governance, and other organizational infrastructure after the crisis has passed, the consequences of any strategic choice eventually become a day to day reality without requiring any particular awareness of those consequences on our part. Current reality becomes the focus of the organization, and how it got to be that way or what might have been if a different choice had been made is viewed as inconsequential. After enough time has passed, it is common for members of an organization, even the senior managers, to have no idea what their strategy “is” or how it actually developed. The strategy is “water to a fish”. It is there but it is everywhere, and can be safely ignored.

After the fact justification imposes a much more rational and planned notion of how the strategy came to be than was actually the case. Many times the How is not transmitted at all, and it is presented to the current organization members as a “fait accompli”.”This is how we do business.” This lack of reflection is reinforced by the use of operational plans and tactical responses rather than ongoing, open-ended, strategic conversation, as the guide for action by the members of the organization. Those operational plans always assume the current configuration of the organization as the unquestionable context for creating operational plans and implementing tactics. Even if the goal of the plan is to expand funding or organizational reach, the objectives are drawn from the current constitution of the organization. Only in failure do most organizations pay any attention to why they do things the way they do, and even then mostly to point fingers and assign blame. Moreover, the unconscious acceptance of the status quo makes even the detection of failure more difficult, much like the old metaphor of the frog and boiling water.

Because of this lack of strategic conversation and reflection, organizations tend to try to repeat their tactics and operational frameworks over and over again. After all, isn’t repetition the way to get good at something? But, all else being equal in the world of change advocacy, any repetition of a tactic or operational framework will be less effective than the previous one. Some examples:

  • Public Protest
  • Petitions
  • Shaming

Over the last half century, each of these tactics has become less effective. In the future they will continue to become less effective, all else being equal.

If all else isn’t equal, then a tactic can continue to produce good benefit. For example, ADAPT has successfully used direct action protest for several decades because the impact of people with significant disabilities blocking entrances with 300-pound electric wheel chairs has overtaxed the usual responses of law enforcement and elite power. Paddy wagons aren’t accessible, the wheelchairs themselves are impossible to move once they are shut down, etc. But the advantages of ingenious or creative uses of tactics are always temporary. There are no “7 steps to social change” techniques that will work forever.

In the big picture of social justice change, the major operational framework that social justice communities have pursued is some kind of legislative change, with community organizing as a close second. Today, we find that most of our legislative work is to stop the undermining of previous social justice gains. Where we are working for positive change, it tends to be either in communities who are trying to get basic civil rights for the first time or by pursuing small tweaks that certainly improve people’s lives, but don’t break new ground.

This is not to say there are no new ways of approaching social justice advocacy. It is only to say that the traditional approaches (actually, any approaches used over and over again) will  lose their impact over time and that this normal and expectable. To repeat, it is also inevitable.

This loss of tactical effectiveness through repetition is a kind of aging. Just as people age, so do organizations, social change tactics, and everything else that is real. In my next post, I’ll take a look at a model of the way everything ages.

Next Post: How Adaptive Systems Age

Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, advocate50+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, Tom and Pepper the wundermutts