Good Ideas for March 31: featuring flowers and avoiding unintended consequences

Today’s video used a few broken-stemmed hyacinths to make a point about things that seem to be healthy but end up not being strong enough to withstand the storm

We have unfortunately received a pretty unavoidable object lesson about the limits on our small businesses’ resilience — and learned that even a short term loss of income is more than many of our small businesses can handle.  Small businesses work on super-tight margins, low cash reserves, sometimes outdated or inefficient systems and technology, and when a crisis hits we see how these factors tear apart what might have looked like a successful business.

And when a crisis isn’t local, like a tornado or a flood, but is national, we get a sudden understanding of just how much of our crucial independent business economy is hanging on by tattered threads.

As we are beginning to transfer from shock to trying to at least stop the bleeding, we are seeing states and cities starting to step up with new grants, new programs, etc.  But there are two challenges that we need to watch out for:

  1. We have to stitch together a cohesive continuum of help.  By now most of us know about the availability of the SBA EIDL disaster loan and the coming Payroll Protection Program (PPP).  And in our heads we know that those aren’t going to fit everyone or work for everyone.  And we’re trying to stack sandbags as fast as we can, I know.

But perhaps instead of making a new program, or making a list of “resources” mostly consisting of obscure programs designed for one segment of the audience, perhaps it’s time to start making sense of the collection, even as it’s still growing.  I can think of two different ways you might organize this information so that your independent businesses can find what they need with as little grief and failure as possible:

    • You could organize by issue.  I need help paying my rent.  I want to keep my employees.  I need to do something that my building permit or zoning code doesn’t normally permit.  Can you identify some of the common problems you are hearing, and connect those problems directly to the best ways available to help?
    • You could organize on a continuum or categories, sorting the resources that are geared toward larger businesses with W2 staff (like the Payroll Protection Program) from those that fit the smallest (like the City of Covington, Kentucky’s new $500 grant to help with this month’s rent).  Helping people to find the resources that fit their business size more quickly will prevent some of them going down rabbit holes chasing help that they cannot qualify for — wasting both their precious limited time and their precious, fragile hope.

2. As we stand up these programs in such a hurry, we have to be extra careful about unintended consequences.  I talked a lot about the impact, the damage of unintended consequences in The Local Economy Revolution — mis-directed incentive programs, urban renewal, auto-focused street design, etc.  A lot of the issues that many of worked on before the pandemic can be traced directly back to the unintended consequences of 20th century programs.

It feels almost cruel to ask you to anticipate what might go wrong even as a crisis is unfolding all around you, but we have to, if we have learned anything from the past.

So your Good Idea for today is to design any new programs you’re involved with to do your best to manage unintended consequences.  With the pressure on to find solutions, our tendency is to gogogogogo.  But these steps won’t take long, and they might make a big difference:

  • Include those who will be impacted in the hands-on work of designing the programs.  A lot of times, the side effect that we didn’t see would have been easy for someone with a different perspective to spot, but we didn’t include them in the decisions.  Now more than ever, we need to include the people who will be directly impacted — not only in giving “feedback” on a partially completed program, but in setting the objectives and designing the thing from the start.

    That might scare some of you, who fear that including more people will make the whole process take too long.  But that can be managed with thoughtfully designed facilitation that keeps everyone on track. And the risks of getting it badly wrong might be worse than the risks of taking the time to hear the perspectives of the people who have the most at stake.

  • There’s a lot of fancy methodologies that can be used to think through potential unintended consequences, but one of the simplest and easiest to put into action is to think through If/Then statements.  If we do X, what are the full range of possible responses?  If one of those responses happens, what are the possibilities that can trigger?

    Obviously, if you take that to an extreme you can paralyze yourself, but if you can work through even two or three levels of this, you will probably identify and be able to work around a large number of unintended consequences.  And if you force the group to think about what could go wrong, not just the right that you intended, then you might uncover some surprises.

    And if you do that with a diverse range of people who have perspectives and professional and life experience very different from yours, you’re even more likely to spot and be able to step around some of the most potentially damaging impacts.

  • The third way to design a program to avoid unintended consequences is to design it for feedback and change.  The City of Noblesville, Indiana, announced an emergency assistance grant whose deadline is this Friday, after which time they will review it and figure out what to do next.  That’s exactly the right idea — try the intervention, but on a short term basis, and then evaluate and revise it before you launch again.  We’re used to building programs that stay in place forever, with only occasional tweaks around the edges, but this is not the time for that (and it probably wasn’t before).  Whatever your programs or interventions, design them for short periods of operation and then review and revision. That way you catch an unexpected consequence while it’s still a bud, not after it’s taken over the whole system.



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