the Athena Group

Athena Bulletin

Unintended Consequences

There was a story today on NPR about how the practice of “social distancing” was adversely affecting the nation’s blood supply. One might not go to a mobile donation site or even a blood donation center if one was practicing social distancing and knew from experience that beds were possibly closer than six feet to each other. And yet, blood donations are constantly needed.

This is an example of an unintended consequence emerging from an intervention (action taken) to change a complex system. One of the Habits of a Systems Thinker is to “consider short-term, long-term and unintended consequences of actions.”

A series of pictures showing the habits of a systems thinker

Often, when we feel the pressure to not “just stand there, do something,” we take an action to relieve short-term discomfort. Often these actions are appropriate and necessary. And, just as often, we take the action and neglect to pause and think about longer-term impacts or impacts that we in no way intend to be an outcome of our action.

We might identify a longer-term impact that is both undesirable and able to be mitigated. (Certainly the impact on the blood collection system could have been mitigated with timely communication about how donors would be protected). We might identify a longer-term impact that is so undesirable that we reconsider whether to take the original intervention, or we find a way to modify the action so that the undesirable longer-term outcome is less likely. It’s important when intervening in a complex system to ask what else might be affected by our action. This is a leadership question.

We can also speculate about possible unintended consequences from our action or decision. Inviting this inquiry is also an act of leadership. We might identify some possibilities, or we might not. The point about complex (human!) systems and unintended consequences is that any intervention will cause unintended consequences. The effect will likely be well separated from the “cause” over time or space (across an organization or community). Thus, when an unintended consequence does emerge, we often don’t connect it back to our well-intended intervention.

It’s hard to speculate about unintended consequences because we just cannot see all the possible interactions among the parts of a complex system over time. The key thing about at least speculating is that we acknowledge that there could be unintended consequences from this thing we’re about to do. Therefore, when some unintended and undesirable consequence does emerge, we are better able to stay curious about what is happening rather than immediately look for someone to blame.

A systems perspective is an important characteristic of a humane workplace.


Steve Byers has 20 years of experience working with teams and leaders, and in convening important conversations in communities and organizations. He has designed and facilitated conversations in culturally diverse communities and organizations on such topics as racism and fair policing, employment and recreation for people with disabilities, access to health care in rural communities, strengthening families to prevent child abuse and neglect, and social determinants of health in immigrant communities. He also trains people to do this work, thus building capacity in the community. Steve works with teams and leaders to improve performance, strengthen working relationships, and increase team member well-being. He has presented multiple interactive workshops at various conferences in the last 15 years, including Elevate Early Learning (Tacoma), In2:InThinking Annual Forum (Los Angeles), and the Pegasus Systems Thinking in Action conference (Boston & Seattle). Any workshop Steve offers can be customized for an organization so that the participants can do real relevant work while learning. Steve is a graduate of the Organization Systems Renewal program at Seattle University. He is an experienced “Art of Hosting” facilitator and trainer. He designs and teaches workshops for organizations and the public, and teaches in a graduate leadership studies program at St. Mary’s College of California. Steve is also the owner of Helping Human Systems, a consulting practice to develop leadership capacity.