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by Stacey Robinson, CAE, KCSAE President-Elect

Have you ever been in a position with a team member or even noticed yourself paying the price for a decision that seemed straight forward at the time, yet ended up resulting in unintended consequences that negatively impacted the organization and its members? I have. More than once.

At Alpha Phi Omega, we call this the ripple effect – not thinking with foresight and examining unintended consequences (UCs).  The challenge we’ve come across is not just how fulfill positions with leaders who have the capacity the think through potential outcomes for even the most seemingly innocent decisions, but even more so how to  teach existing team members. The goal is that as a unit, we think through the impact of UCs as second nature in our decision making.

For us, the key has been asking team members to work through the following steps in their decision making. At first, we guide and work through these steps with them as a development opportunity. Eventually, we reinforce the concepts through questions and problem solving. We have found over time that every staff member is capable of thinking through unintended consequences before moving through with decisions. The process itself is not difficult, having the discipline to put it into action consistently is the tough part.

Five Steps to the Ripple Effect

  • What are my current choices and or options? Even the simplest of decisions can have UC.  We just came off a holiday weekend.  The Friday before the weekend business is slow and I am thinking of closing the office for an extra-long weekend for all staff.  What are my options?  Identify my options: I could close the office or not? I could close the office early and work part of the day.
  • Consider the Ripple Effect: Is there information I need to collect? Does the information change the decision? How many employees are already using PTO for the day?  Are there any organizational deadlines that fall on this day?  Are there any staff projects that are due on this day or that one less day to complete would seriously compromise the project being completed on schedule?
  • What are the Unintended Consequences? How will the decision impact our members? Others not directly impacted? How will this decision impact volunteers and Board members? Does the decision impact vendors? Will any staff have to reschedule existing appointments? Are there any other unforeseen costs to this decision?  Does the decision cause any additional time or attention by anyone else?
  • Making the Decision? Once I have thought through the UCs I can then decide if the impact of the decision outweighs moving forward with the decision.
  • Determine the Communication Plan: Do I have enough time to communicate the decision to let everyone make adjustments if needed to their schedule? Who do I need to communicate the decision to?  Are there others that would benefit from knowing about the decision in advance?

While this is just a simple example, it is the same process as outlined for more in-depth decisions.

As association professionals, we naturally wear many hats and look for staff who can do the same, while thinking critically and with foresight. Teaching and implementing the Ripple Effect has started a conversation and changed expectations for the team. Think it through, consider the UCs and make a decision that results in the greater good for the greater number. Admittedly, implementing this concept could be more challenging in an organization that is very structured with limited ability for employees to independently problem solve. i.e. I didn’t see a policy on that…

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