Unintended side effects are common with pharmaceuticals, so why should we be surprised when the same thing happens during or after an organizational change initiative is launched? Organizations are complex, interdependent social systems. Like a water balloon, when we push on one part of it, another part changes. While anticipating the side effects of a change initiative is not easy to do, some effort should be made to envision what those ripple effects might be.
Similar to scenario analysis of future environmental states, 1by envisioning potential outcomes in advance we are more prepared to deal with the outcomes that may result. Furthermore, by trying to anticipate future unintended consequences, sponsors of the change and the change agents are more attentive to the unfolding nature of the change initiative and more likely to learn from the experience. 2It is important to remember, however, that cause and effect are often not closely related in time and space when trying to change a complex system. Consequently, analogies can be a useful tool for anticipating unintended consequences of change. Another tool for anticipating the effects of a change initiative are computerized simulations. 3
One systems thinking tool that can be instrumental in anticipating ripple effects are causal loop diagrams. 4Diagrams help us to visualize how the change might unfold. Causal loops remind us that there are feedback linkages within systems that can dampen or amplify the effects of initiatives. In sum, anticipating ripple effects is more art than science, but the effort will ensure that unintended side effects are avoided and will deepen the change sponsors’ understanding of the systemic nature of change.