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Avoiding unintended consequences through an agile approach

Posted 5 Apr 2019

The world is changing, and successful innovators are going to be the ones who seek new business practices and new mindsets centred around a responsibility to people and society.

Many leaders of the biggest tech companies of our time have admitted that they simply did not think about the consequences of what they were creating and because of this lack of forethought we have all been experiencing “tech lash” as the unintended consequences of digital technologies built within the move fast and break things culture have become apparent.

Tech companies have suffered massive reputational damage, missed opportunities to harness human diversity to solve new problems, and created products that were not as good as they could have been because they were not innovating responsibly.

But now with some of the advances in technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we have the opportunity to decide what we want our world and the future to look like.

Doteveryone is an independent think tank founded by Martha Lane Fox to explore how technology is changing society, show what responsible technology can look like, and build communities to improve the way technology shapes our world.

We started a new programme called TechTransformed to empower responsible innovators and create responsible business practices for technology.

We spent the past year researching the issues organisations face when trying to embed responsible technology practices in practical and tangible ways. From our research and events such as the Canada-UK Symposium on AI Ethics led by Digital Catapult – where incredible pioneers and thinkers are present – we have learned:

  • Discussion alone is no longer enough, it’s time for action
  • Organisational values and responsibility are most important for making a difference
  • It isn’t just about technology solutions
  • We need to go beyond user needs
  • Design for consequences

Introducing Consequence Scanning – a new agile event

While many practitioners are able to recognise problems in what they’re creating, there are gaps in the development process in thinking about what a product will do once out in the real world. There is no dedicated time or methods to raise and address them in a consistent way. We realised creating an agile approach to designing for the consequences of technology was the best way to create that opportunity.

Which is why we created a new agile event or ceremony called Consequence Scanning. This new event fits into an iterative development cadence and allows organisations to reflect on the impact and consider the potential consequences of what is being built  in a practical way –  early and often.

Consequence Scanning draws on the same characteristics and attributes of other agile events — mainly being lightweight, simple to understand, but difficult to master. The entirety of the timeboxed event is centered on answering these three questions:

  • 1. What are the intended and unintended consequences?
  • 2. What are the positive aspects we want to focus on?
  • 3. What are the not-so-positive aspects we want to mitigate?

After ideating around consequences, discussion should centre on how to bring action items forward into planning and backlog activities. The answers to these questions become a log that serves as the main artefact of this event.

THIS is where diversity, multi-disciplinary and cross-functional input really matters

Consequence Scanning calls for an even greater multidisciplinary and cross-functional collaboration than exists within typical agile events today.

We recommend having not only the core team present, but also user representatives such as research and design; representatives from other technical collaborators such as security, infrastructure and risk; user specialist collaborators such as marketing, communications, change management, sales, customer service; and organisational collaborators such policy or corporate social responsibility. If you’re a small startup, ideating with friends and peers can work as well.

The key thing is that when considering the consequences of a technology, it’s critical there’s a diversity of life experiences, disciplines, points of view and areas of expertise involved. This also adds to the candor of the conversation, where those outside of the day-to-day creation can offer benevolent criticism with the aim of making the best product possible. Having different perspectives and disciplines contributing to the conversation might also lead to creating something truly innovative.

When to think about consequences

This new agile event should be done throughout the development of a product or service, from strategy formation and roadmap planning through to feature creation, as it’s intended to be a formal and clear point where an organisation is able to focus on the consequences of what they’re creating and ensure those consequences align with their organisational values, vision and strategy.

Consequence Scanning is better done in the early stages of product and feature planning as the prompts for ideation and brainstorming on consequences are meant to spark new ideas. Participants will be more likely to think critically if they haven’t done the work yet and become attached to ideas. If needed, this will make pivoting or implementing new directions much easier.


This event should surface consequences and ideas that are actionable.

Consequence Scanning should lead to product decisions with a focus on the positive aspects aligned to an organisation’s vision and values, while also providing the opportunity to mitigate or address potential harms or disasters before they happen.

When prioritising, participants should sort potential consequences into categories – what they can directly action with those in the room, what they can influence the outcome of within their networks, and what is out of their control but they should better understand and monitor.

This is not simply a talking exercise. Some consequences may be quick wins that can be solved immediately within the confines of the event, and others may need to go into other processes – but the team building and conversations should be an active part of the development process.

Why adopting an agile approach to designing for consequences is the new business imperative and will lead to success

Being able to show that your organisation actively considers and cares about its impact in the world is one of the most important aspects of a successful business.

Consequence Scanning offers organisations an opportunity to ensure their technologies and their people reflect their values and culture, as participants can only answer what intended, positive consequences they will have if they know and understand the organisational strategy and values.

It also signals to employees, customers and external stakeholders that an organisation prioritises strategic and critical thinking that leads to values-led innovation.

Clustering representatives from different disciplines to think through in a timeboxed and structured way what the consequences of a technology may be will become the main engine of innovation and growth within an organisation. Providing talented people with the opportunity to think critically and to combine and recombine their ideas and efforts will massively increase productivity and ferment the type of thinking that new inventions and internal influencers come from.