Side Effects

June 30, 2024

Reading the leaflet inside some medication recently, I was struck by its side effects. Of the over 100 things listed, including the most severe you might imagine, was a high chance of worsening the condition the medicine was to treat. Kill or cure – like taking a course of loud noises, bright lights, and espresso for a migraine – this stuff is clearly going to do something.

A couple of years ago, I was working with a team of project managers, and I got asked to help someone assess themselves against a leadership framework. Sure! Glad to help, even if I hadn’t heard of it before.

Of course, that is to be expected. Our bodies are complex systems, and a tonic that works perfectly for one person might have profoundly different outcomes for another. Between those extremes are a vast array of responses, and the corresponding list of side effects represents what we know about that diversity. That list also reminds us that there isn’t only an upside on offer, and stronger, more disruptive medicines inevitably balance greater reward with greater risk.

This is a premise that organisational consultants, change agents, and authors of the latest-greatest-model should be questioned about. Our organisations, through the many independent and interconnected relationships within them, are also complex systems. As such, when we are implementing a new structure, what are the potential side effects? When we adopt that new leadership framework that someone thinks is a good idea, what are the potential side effects? When we change to a universal approach for all our project delivery, what are the potential side effects?

In each case, I don’t mean a risk register. Risk registers (almost) never capture impact outside of the initiative they represent. They focus on risk to the project’s own success, rather than a consideration of what we are risking by doing the project in the first place. What I mean instead is an open discussion about what we know the possible damage such a project, change, or initiative could inflict.

Briefly taking OKRs as an example (but replace OKRs with anything else, ISO compliance, Scrum, an ‘Authentic Leadership’ model etc):

The promise

  • Big ambitions and results! OKRs can encourage ideas that are beyond the point of knowing if the target is even possible. Few truly radical things came from merely repeating what went before, etcetera, etcetera.
  • Redefined failure! The attitude to failing can shift, where we now believe 50% of something amazing is much better than 100% of something mundane.
  • Creativity and innovation! Delivering minor increments can often be done with current practice. Momentous change needs new thinking.

(And of course, all the big tech firms are doing it, so you would be crazy not to join them!)

Potential side effects

  • Very common. Implementing OKR practice is hard to do, and it takes many iterations to find the mechanics that will work in your own organisation. The template you start with is not what you will end up with.
  • Very common. Confusion about how OKRs fit in with existing plans and targets, pay and reward will create waste and impact morale.
  • Common. People resent the introduction of yet-another-thing-we-have-to-do and enthusiasm for doing something that Google does will not be universal.
  • Common. OKRs typically involve more meetings and discussions and more paperwork depending on how you operate. You need to make that investment worth it.
  • Common. At least a short-term reduction in goals and objective performance.
  • Common. Potential training and development costs to upskill employees.


And so on.

OKRs may still be a thing that can do you some good, and indeed, you may never see any of the side effects manifest. However, that knowledge will mean you can decide with better facts available and are more likely to notice when things go wrong.