Every product has unintended consequences. That is because people often use or adapt products in ways that are different from the designers intent.
Some unintended consequences are benign, while others are profound or difficult to imagine. I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought recently in the context of my company Drop Bio. The trends in healthcare and biotechnology, data ownership and the roles that doctors and regulators play in keeping people safe are changing rapidly.
Like most sectors undergoing disruption, new business models are being tested to see which ones affect change and generate value. This form of experimentation is likely to result in many unintended consequences.
As founders, we have three doors we can walk through when it comes to unintended consequences.
First, follow Facebook’s philosophy of ‘running fast and breaking things’ as a means to learn and iterate quickly. The desire to identify and act on unintended consequences is relatively low in this model.
Second, cautiously develop products knowing that unintended consequences are imminent. This situation can paralyse, or significantly slow momentum as founders seek permission or in-depth validation before moving to the next stage of product development.
Third, forecast unintended consequences to the fullest extent possible and embed this knowledge into products.
I choose door number three and here’s why and how I bring that philosophy to life.
The unexpected consequence ‘line of sight’
When founders start building companies, their view of unintended consequences is often limited to their understanding of competition and the feedback they receive in response to investment pitches.
In other words, the potential to understand unexpected consequences is limited to the people who will listen to a founder’s pitch and what the founder can Google about their competition.
And while frequently asked questions and observations will arise as founders pitch to more people over time, we don’t ask for explicit feedback on unintended consequences. If we did, it might derail the pitch. A more likely outcome is that FAQs become perceived as objections. As a result, founders reframe the feedback (which may well be highlighting a consequence of the model) to a well-crafted response designed to overcome the objection and maintain momentum in a conversation.
Wouldn’t you want to know?
This question comes up a lot in predictive and digital healthcare. If an algorithm, doctor or product could reliably predict a genetic pre-disposition or deliver early warning of a disease, would you want to know?
There is a fear that comes with knowing the future. And a range of near-term and abstract ’what if’ scenarios can be overwhelming if they lack a framework to organise and understand each situation.
However, the bottom line is that knowledge contributes to high-quality decision making. A lack of information usually leads to poor decision making. Take an extreme situation like a cancer diagnosis. Most people who receive this news undergo shock and then develop an insatiable appetite to learn about their condition, and lifestyle and treatment options.
When it comes to building a company, founders, like team members, investors and partners, work to de-risk, stabilise and grow a business model. Much of this journey is unpredictable, and no one wants or needs any more surprises. But there is a way to forecast unintended consequences. To be forearmed and on the front foot.
Forecasting unintended consequences
This process involves three ingredients.
First, a list of consistent feedback a founder receives when pitching. The statements of most interest, in the context of unexpected consequences, are the ones that focus on the implications of the product and less on the product itself. For example, feedback on how a social media platform might change consumer attention is more critical than the app’s onboarding flow. These statements may be interesting during the pitch but can be downplayed or dismissed because of the need to convince an investor to engage. I log these statements in my notes app soon after meetings with potential investors, hires and partners. It’s part of my after-action review, so I don’t forget these statements as I move from one meeting to another.
Second, a small amount of incentive-free team time. Founders and their teams are usually smart people. They have dedicated their lives to solving the problem at hand, and there is a good chance that unintended consequences are continually processing in their minds. I think it’s essential to allow teams the time to openly discuss and express how they perceive unintended consequences from their vantage point.
‘Incentive-free’ time means permitting them to speak about those consequences in ways that don’t threaten their incentives, for example, their jobs, options or reputation.
Third, triangulating unintended consequences with six kinds of people, including:
- Ally – a colleague, co-founder, investor or advisor
- Friend – a non-work related relationship who knows you well
- Devil’s advocate – someone who brings constructive yet argumentative logic to most conversations
- Uninitiated – a potential customer or user of your product who has not heard the pitch before
- Widely informed – a journalist that focuses on world affairs
- Narrow specialist – a person who has intimate knowledge of the status quo
With each of these people, generally in separate meetings, I pitch the idea, business model or issue and ask them one question, ‘What could be the unintended consequences, both good and bad?’
Answers from this one question can reinforce what’s already known or surface new thinking. However, the point is that diverse perspectives help to triangulate unintended consequences objectively.
Preparing to learn
Identifying unintended consequences is the first step in this process. The next step in a Google Sheet with your team is to:
- Rank each unintended consequence in order of perceived importance to the business
- List three scenarios for how each consequence could play out in the next two years
- Draft a statement about how our company would respond to each scenario
We then schedule a time to revisit this assessment every quarter. This move ensures the team is ready to learn and maintain a unique self-awareness continually.
One last thing…
I have been using this framework for some time, and others use similar models (like on the Should This Exist Podcast). There is also a good chance that your team and investors are already thinking about these consequences. So it makes sense to capitalise on the collective wisdom of your team, those you’ve pitched to and the six types of people I described above.
I find this process very useful, and while you might not have resolutions to every unintended consequence, forewarned is forearmed. And that’s a great help when you’re trying to create a new order.