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Anticipating Implications and (Un)Intended Consequences

Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

Critically analyzing actions before implementation

Dear collaborative discussion friends,

This week we are highlighting an activity that explores unintended consequences. Often what we consider an unintended consequence could actually have been predicted through the critical analysis of a particular course of action. This activity helps participants unearth the unintended consequences of actions before they are carried out. It also encourages participants to develop strategies to prevent or mitigate any unfavorable outcomes.

This activity is contributed by Jack Byrd Jr., Professor of Industrial Engineering at West Virginia University and President of the Interactivity Foundation. It is one of the many activities in the Critical Collaboration Module.

If you missed the previous newsletter, Seeking Divergent Thinking and Perspectives, you can access it and our other weekly newsletters by subscribing below.


This week’s activity:

Activity 3.6 – Anticipating Implications and (Un)Intended Consequences

Thinking through unintended consequences and developing strategies to address them

This activity helps participants generate as detailed and comprehensive a list as possible of the many unintended consequences of a particular action, exploring all the dimensions associated with the issue. They then evaluate the probability of these unintended results. Participants also develop tactics to stop the most likely of the adverse outcomes from occurring or to reduce their impact.

Activity 3.6 – Anticipating Implications and (Un)Intended Consequences

Select or Create Your Own Scenario

Begin this activity by selecting one of the following two scenarios or creating your own scenario. Review the scenario with the full group.

Raising Academic Standards

“Ever since David Perick joined the college as Dean, he was on a mission to increase academic standards. Entrance requirements were raised resulting in a 20% drop in enrollment. Requirements to get into a major were raised. This resulted in a transfer rate of 10% of students from college. Perick’s latest effort was to increase the overall graduation requirement GPA from 2.00 to 2.25.”


City of Greenmont

“The City of Greenmont was devastated by a major flood. All of the riverfront was destroyed. The city leaders decided that the need to rebuild the riverfront was an opportunity to upgrade the appearance of the city. Building codes were upgraded. Design standards were created. The Building Commission added aesthetics to one of its decision criteria for approval of new construction or major renovations. A public/private partnership was created to rebuild the city’s riverfront. The project was a huge success and became a showcase for how the city could transform its appearance. This led to further changes in the city. Older buildings were condemned and replaced with structures that met the new codes, building standards, and aesthetics.”

Break into Small Groups and Identify Unintended Consequences

Invite participants to break into small groups (4-6 ppl). Ask them to work together to generate a list of all the possible outcomes of the actions described in the scenario being implemented. For example, with the City of Greenmont situation, what effects might actions such as including aesthetics as criteria for approving new construction or replacing older buildings have?

If participants are having trouble coming up with unintended consequences, you could provide additional prompts to guide them, such as:

  • What are the possible ramifications at different levels, from the local to the national or global, as it applies to the particular issue being discussed?
  • What are some unexpected short term and long term consequences?
  • What are the ripple effects?

You can also invite them to use the Surround the Topic diagram from Activity 3.5 Seeking Divergent Thinking and Perspectives to think of all the different areas that are affected by or affect this issue. Encourage them to think of unlikely dimensions beyond those already shown on the diagram and the possible consequences related to these dimensions.

Once they have generated as many unintended consequences as they can, have them review their list to see if any similar items can be merged into one.

Individually Evaluate the Probability of the Consequences

Next, ask participants to review the list quietly on their own and assign a value to each consequence using the following rating scale:

  • I believe this unintended consequence is very likely to occur (5 points).
  • I believe this unanticipated consequence could occur, but it’s not very likely that it will (3 points).
  • I don’t believe this unanticipated consequence will occur (1 point).

Combine Individual Ratings to Identify the Most Probable Outcomes

Once they have individually rated each value, have them add up the points assigned individually to each consequence to identify which of the unexpected outcomes are most probable.

Another point to consider is that not all unintended consequences are negative. Some might be positive. So, if time permits, participants can also review the full list of consequences they generated and identify which ones are favorable, unfavorable, or a combination of the two. They can also think about whose interests are served or not by each outcome.

Develop Strategies to Mitigate Unfavorable Consequences

Invite participants to now choose the top 5 to 10 outcomes, depending on how much time is available and how many consequences have been identified as those most likely to occur. Ask participants to develop some solutions to prevent or reduce the effect of the unfavorable outcomes listed among those that are most likely.

Debrief as a Full Group

Invite each small group to share the top 3 to 5 most probable consequences from their list and the strategies they developed to address the unfavorable ones. Discuss:

  • Where are there commonalities?
  • Which unintended consequences stand out?
  • When can we anticipate unintended consequences? When is it less likely?

In addition to these debriefing questions, the full description of Activity 3.6 Anticipating Implications and (Un)Intended Consequences includes reflection questions and a practice journal prompt to help participants dive deeper.

If you try out this activity, please share with us what you think:

Rate Activity 3.6

We hope this toolkit activity helps participants anticipate unintended consequences before implementing any course of action and develop strategies to prevent or lessen the impact of adverse outcomes.

Upcoming Events

  • The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University is hosting Frontiers of Democracy 2023: Religious Pluralism and Robust Democracy in Multiracial Societies, from July 13 (5 – 7 PM) to July 15 (noon) at the Joyce Cummings Center (177 College Ave, Medford, MA). The cost is $240 for a standard ticket. Discounts are available for students and community partners. Learn more here. Registration ends on July 9, 2023. All are welcome! Register and purchase tickets here.
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Looking forward to collaborating,

Ritu Thomas & the Collaborative Discussion Team