The Law of Benign Unintended Consequences

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Every change we make has unintended consequences, we all know that. But you can tell a good idea by the way that the unintended consequences are benign and/or beneficial.

Two examples, one from my work at Birmingham Conservatoire, the other from Magenta:

At the Conservatoire

When I devised the Professional Portfolio module for the postgrad courses back in 2003, the intended consequences were for students to have the capacity to customise their programme of study in line with their career plans, and to have some structured support in the process of planning and reflection. On top of this we got the following useful outcomes:

  • the structured audit of employability skills gave a framework in which to get a much deeper insight in students’ personalities and individual needs right at the start of the course than a more conventional pastoral interview afforded.
  • The timing of the four tutorials during the academic year was chosen to support the module, but also worked really well to diagnose if students were running into difficulties with the course in general at points where intervention could be effective.
  • The reflective diary and summary report submitted in the final portfolio provide excellent (nuanced, detailed, honest) feedback to the course team about the student experience – much better than post-hoc measuring of opinions.

In Magenta

One of the less orthodox practices we have in Magenta is that nobody has fixed voice parts – we switch around into different parts for different songs. The intended consequences of this were, firstly, so that you didn’t get sections developing stereotypes either of character type or vocal/musical habits – something I’ve written about in both my books in rather different ways. Secondly, it was to encourage a broader musicianship: you get a different view of how the music works from different parts. This is also why we learn music by all singing through each part together – so that we’re all learning the music, not just a part. What also happened was:

  • Blend has never been a problem. When people are switching round to sing in different part combinations for each song, they all get to stand next to each other at various points in the rehearsal process, and so have just learned to connect with each other’s voices without having to work on it very much at all.
  • The social relationships are likewise much more multiple and interconnected than they would have been had everyone had a set spot in the texture (and by extension, in the rehearsal room).

Of course, the law of benign unintended consequences is only really useful for identifying good ideas in retrospect – it doesn’t tell you in advance whether something is going to work. But it does tell you which ideas to keep running with once the positive side-effects start to emerge.

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