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The unintended consequences of constraint

unintended consequences of constraints

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES ARE THINGS we’re warned about when addressing complex problems.  With so many rules and regulations, it can be tricky to foresee every outcome of our interventions.  But we rarely imagine these effects can be so positive.

Often constraints can be advantageous.  Ask any creative who regularly works to deadlines.  Frequently, innovation arises through some sort of limitation.  Necessity, it’s said, is the mother of invention.

It’s something of an irony that the latest global health scare, COVID-19, could teach us valuable lessons about managing global risks — for example climate change.  While one’s sympathy, of course, goes out to anyone impacted by disease, flood or fire, the new human pandemic could potentially help us mitigate the degradation in eco-services delivered by a planet that is also sick: soothing things at least, a sight further than we’ve managed during the half century of business-as-usual since people first sounded the alert.

illustrates coronavirus reduced travel pollution

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens using Sentinel 5P data processed by the European Space Agency.

Across the world, governments and organisations are encouraging everyone to keep their distance from anyone who might have become contagious.  Countries start responding when infection levels appear, directing more staff to work from home, to eschew large international events (or even smaller ones), and to put themselves in quarantine on their return.

The effect is that, in a matter of just weeks, we have stepped up efforts to reduce travel — inadvertently, addressing the carbon appetite of the most voracious area of industry.  According to the World Health Organisation, while most sectors are slowly reducing carbon emissions, transport is actually increasing its contribution to climate heating.

Satellite images over China (right) show the dramatic impact there of the change in travel patterns. The picture is repeating as countries lock down.

Another consequence of this physical distancing is to accelerate the change in how businesses use technology to relate to their clients.  We’re learning that understanding external forces can help companies stay ahead of the competition.

Learning from the Pandemic

Much meaningful innovation arises through a lack of money, time, people or other resource. These ‘system boundaries’ force us to see things  differently.  Thus, we can learn from a pandemic how to adapt our behaviour in response, say, to environmental threats.  Opportunities like this don’t seem to come around often.  Yet, systems are all around us, in high-impact global risk, and we can learn to think in ‘their language’.

While COVID may feel scary to us now, infectious disease features as a risk ‘less-likely’ and ‘lower-impact’ in 2020’s World Economic Forum Global Risks Perception Survey.  According to the thought-leadership from Davos, if we think Coronavirus has been disruptive, just wait until we’re hit by the full force of climate change.

Delayed impact

IPCC hockey stickThere’s one particular question that seems to be puzzling the armchair scientists: in spite of several weeks’ notice, why were so many people caught out by the speed at which the pandemic spread?  One reason is that we are used to linear ‘straight-line’ thinking. As Sir Isaac Newton tried to teach us: ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’  Yet, the kind of risks we are now encountering are systemic issues, which behave fundamentally differently to the kinds of ‘straight-line’ puzzles we are more used to solving — most unlike apples falling from trees on a windless day.  By their nature, complex problems are ‘messy’ and respond unpredictably when we try to intervene.

Models developed in one setting are rarely transferable to another, even though the contexts may seem similar.  Most of us had switched off science by the time that lesson came around.

When we think of time in a linear way — equally-spaced days, weeks and years — we fail to notice things getting worse.  Logarithmic scales can show us the rate of change, as explains.  This is the school maths that we whined we would never need.  But it’s critical to help us evaluate risk properly.

Complex systems are characterised by delay followed by sudden change that can be very difficult to control.  As we have seen, pandemic spread can be measured in days and weeks; our bodies might take decades to show the effects of earlier abuse; and climate change has taken 100 years to exhibit obvious symptoms.

When dangers interact, the picture becomes even messier.  Whether you’re a company or country, these interdependencies — say, between transport and energy; or staying at home and buying toilet roll — make or break your ability to effect change.  They teach us the critical importance of collaborating across corporate and national boundaries.  If we hoard all the hand-sanitizer, the people without will become dangerous.  We might also want to think about the markets without ventilators or testing kits.

Working with Aston Business School

It feels like we are in an alien business world: and our clients haven’t been here either.  Their boards are under huge stress.

Yet, there will come a time — perhaps this summer — when companies are ready to respond.  If they’re still here, that is, and not facing imminent extinction.

Then might be a good time to explore a couple of questions: whether any assumptions made before the crisis proved to be false; and whether the previous operating model is still viable. How can we stop ourselves getting caught out by climate change the way we were caught out  by the pandemic?

Companies need help now in practical ways, especially interceding in their communications. Because we’re not involved in the day-to-day, we can moderate the conversations going on, bringing perspectives they don’t have and helping them make better decisions.

We’re here and this is what we do. We understand what‘s going on with the crisis and are used to looking at uncertainty. We can help you moderate and faciltiate the conversations you’re having to make them more productive.

In partnership with Aston Business School, we are looking for people interested in developing systems thinking to address complex problems and challenges.  Our central focus is on change and innovation within engineering and technology, especially transport via rail, sea and air.

If you are interested in participating in such a group, please subscribe, below, to join our audience and receive further information.

Moving events online

A personal journey

It wasn’t our intention to become specialists in supporting online learning events, when we set up our company 20 years ago.   It’s great now to be able to help clients who want to support staff in quarantine or incubation at home.  These enquiries are coming in as countries move into the ‘delay’ phase of the coronavirus, preventing groups gathering in order to help slow down infection.  It’s an unintended consequence of the constraints we put in years ago, that we can help companies put plans in place for staff off-sick or in quarantine, and alternatives for small and larger events.  So how did we create the conditions for these unintended consequences? Pretty much, by accident; and far from plain-sailing.

large group meets online

Screenshot from a 2020 workshop with some 150 participants from USA to Europe. Note the navigation arrows to scroll between screens of 25 participants each.

As a startup, we wanted our company to help create a better world through story, caring for people and planet through the way we work and the products and services we offer.   This created challenging limitations on the way we work with our staff: scheduling meetings near train stations and outside rush hours; developing a geographically-dispersed network of associates so that we could minimise flights; and supporting everyone through online group coaching sessions.  In retrospect, it was quite an idealistic position and there were many times when we failed to live up to our values.  Some clients even complained publicly.  We’re not perfect by a long shot, but we do our best to walk our talk and learn from our mistakes.

For me, this ‘learning by doing’ has a great source of strength; a rock, if you like, to hang onto through the many storms.  Practically, it’s been a process of continual action and reflection. Even our freelancers keep diaries and share updates from time to time.  We record questions and insights, and we share and read extracts before the online peer-coaching sessions where we often see new perspectives.  The effect has been to allow the company to continually adapt its strategy and plans in response to external changes.

Crucially, since 2010, we’ve embedded this this ‘learning by doing’ into our management systems, formalising it within our ISO9001 certification.  It’s now become a feature of our service valued by clients.  Our passion for learning attracted university staff and their graduates and we created an innovation programme around this.  Even after EU funding, we found ways to continue this almost as a summer excuse to explore new themes that we cared about.  The intern coaching programme and international awards largely came out of a desire to make up to the young people for lousy pay.

To support client events — both online and physical — Contented works with a team of experienced content producers and educational facilitators (that’s where we get the name content+ed) to address complex problems and develop thought-leadership.  So, the driver for running virtual groups was the constraint of cash and our own carbon budgets, putting in place processes and training for our team.  At this risk of appearing presumptuous, the constraints of our values created the conditions for the unintended consequence that we are now well-positioned to support companies who want to monitor and support staff located remotely.

From constraint to value-add

Can we imagine a business opportunity from this new world of uncertainty?  We are now inviting companies to work with us to explore it.  Here’s an insider view of our own thinking so far …

In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536)

Our experience so far suggests the opportunity could be one of thought-leadership:

  1. creating environments for accidental insights;
  2. developing skills and processes to capture and promote them to important audiences.

Both the coronavirus and climate change crises are ‘complex adaptive systems’.  This means they are natural systems that are both dynamic, non-linear and characterised by complex and unseen interrelationships across our physical, biological, social, cultural and technological worlds.  As such, they frequently exhibit unpredictable behaviour.  It’s certainly not the case that lessons from one can be directly applied to the other — that’s a common and frequently fatal mistake — but both of these complex problems can be addressed through systems thinking.  It’s crucial that governments and organisations seize the opportunity to take multi-sector, interdisciplinary steps to learn how to understand and address these kinds of risks.  The only certainty is that there will be more ahead.

One of the great lessons of non-linear behaviour is that of unintended consequences.  As one scientist put it: “Complex systems are tricky: you poke them in one place and they react somewhere you never expected.”  In the case of reducing transport-driven carbon, an unintended consquence of staying at home might be that everyone starts buying more online.  The main drivers of global transport energy growth are land transport, mostly light-duty vehicles, such as cars, as well as freight transport, says the WHO.  A high risk is that more people will ‘click-to-buy’ in order to stay away from crowds of shoppers, putting more vans and lorries on the roads.  Of course, that requires that the logistics sector hasn’t gone off-sick.

Complex challenges like COVID-19 are valuable opportunities to use what we have to do in the short-term to explore what we might learn for the longer term. How might we use the disease as a development lab to trigger ideas and initiatives that will serve us well when the next complex problem arrives?

What follows is the approach we’ve been using to try to do just that.

Taking an enquiry-based approach

As discussed above, this latest coronavirus has quickly demonstrated the fragility of our everyday assumptions about how we work.  Such complex issues do not respond well to straight-line thinking: definition, desired outcome, analysis, options, choice. They respond better to creative thinking, reframing, redefining, risk-taking, and particularly accepting uncertainty — ‘not knowing’.

Influencing systems requires an active learning approach that starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios; then carrying out small experiments to ‘prod’ the system and record what happens. It contrasts with traditional education, which generally relies on a didactic approach, where a so-called expert presents ‘known facts’ about the subject.

Complex problems also benefit from a group of people with diverse ways of seeing the world.  As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  When you’re faced with addressing complex problems, it’s a good time to call in the team.  Probably an external facilitator, too.

Questions as tools

put us in a good and that engage in enquiry to learn more about ourselves, our interactions with others, and the larger questions that concern us.

W e keep diaries and share extracts in private, aggregating and anonymising these for publication to strangers.

working with groups of more than 150 down to 1:1 coaching.   We address collaborate in learning groups to address

  • first-person research is research that we do by ourselves on ourselves;
  • second-person research involves creating enquiry groups with others in which we are willing to explore any incongruities our mission, strategy, performance, and outcomes (what we say and do);
  • third-person research takes place



We pick up the story — at least, this new chapter — with something that’s out of sorts.  The ordinary world of our personal life, work or wider society, is changing.  Perhaps something seems to be getting in the way.  It’s like a phone that keeps ringing.

In Action Enquiry [U.S., Action Inquiry], we ask three distinctive types of questions before, during and after the process of acting.  The aim is to improve the timelines and effectiveness of that action.  The three kinds are:

  • First person dynamics. One’s own awareness.  What am I noticing about the the outside world, my own thoughts, feelings and behaviour as sensed by myself?  For example, why did I decide to travel, or not, on a particular occasion? What did I observe when I did/didn’t attend?
  • Second-person dynamics. The immediate group with whom one is interacting.  For example, a colleague asked his son why he felt he need to work in an office and reported back to our group. What narratives are we creating together?
  • Third-person dynamics. That of the larger institutions within which one’s action is situated. For example, what does a government minister say is the reason for a particular decision?  What is the wider story being told?

Throughout this process, we are “listening for the patterns of relationships.” (Torbert, 1999)  For example, what incongruities do we observe? What voices are not being heard; what is not being said?

Out-there ideas

What ideas are there that might relate to these questions? What new questions do they raise?

Here’s a video from Adam Morgan, one of the authors of Beautiful Constraint, which explores case studies of companies that have used limitations to innovate.  Take a moment to listen to your internal voice… what questions does this arouse?

Stay alert and listen out for other ideas that resonate with your enquiry questions.


This step is often easier as part of a group.  What small steps might you take to explore these questions?  What do you expect / not expect to happen? How will you evaluate their impact?

Keep asking the questions.  As you go, pay attention and record the various niggles, the elephants in the room. Are these signs that something is amiss? Notice how you respond — and others behave in turn.

Emeritus professor Peter Reason, former director of the Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice, writes: “As we become immersed in our work, we may begin to see things in new ways, we may deepen an interest, or be led into new fields, unpredicted action and creative insights.”  There may be a crisis, we may be inspired, or we may completely forget about the enquiry.

This phase is what makes action enquiry so different from conventional research, because people become deeply involved in their experience and new skills or understandings grow.

Carry out these actions and record the results.  Keeping a diary or journal is a good way. If you write for your eyes only, you’re more likely to be honest with yourself.  Later, you can edit for a wider audience, if you wish.

climate adaptation consequence of health scare

A lesson from history

A word of caution, however, before we start drawing up balanced scorecards of zoonotic disease in waterworlds of political dysfunction run by wayward robots.

Back in the 19th century, it was a pioneering Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, who first estimated the scope of warming from widespread burning of coal.  Yes, he of the Arrhenius equation in thermodynamics, describing the temperature dependence of reactions.  The physical chemist first published his calculations of global warming from human emissions of CO2, as early as 1896.

Envisioning more abundant agriculture and “more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth,” he mainly foresaw climate change as a boon.

Picture, left: “Father of climate change”, Svante Arrhenius. Bronze bust by Adolf Jonsson. Photo by Udo Schröter.

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