Key ideas: Doing good AND harm

This is one of a series of shorter interlinked articles expanding on more theoretical ideas about how we might go about ‘changing the world’. If you want an easier starting point – if the words below sound like irrelevant theoretical academic jargon – then start with the article ‘This isn’t going to be easy‘ instead and come back here later. These ideas are about things we need to remember if – in practical terms – we’re going to actually make a difference and not accidentally make things worse – but they take some getting used to.

We’re involved in trying to change ‘how things are done around here.’

We’re engaged in ‘wicked problems’ or ‘adaptive challenges‘ (if you have no idea what I mean thenĀ read this instead).

What we’re wanting to change isn’t just cosmetic. It’s deep. It’s profound.

So here’s an incredibly important key idea to keep in mind.

Whatever intervention we make, if it’s powerful enough to do good, will also be powerful enough to do harm. It’s unlikely that it will do any good without also doing harm at the same time.

That sounds like an odd thing to say, but as far as I see it this is as good as a rule.

The reasons for this are complex. If you’re interested in theory there are ideas like ‘collective intelligence’ and ’emergence’ to grapple with. There are whole professions which try to understand these things, and to find ways to describe them.

But rather than worrying about theory have a think about your practice instead. Is there any intervention you’ve seen that hasn’t had a downside? How hard did you look? Are you working for one of those organisations that tries to evidence and evaluate and measure success? Has it occurred to you that if you don’t also look for evidence of failure and harm then you’re skewing the results? The world of science noticed that this was necessary hundreds of years ago – and it’s just as true when working on adaptive change – but typical ‘evaluation’ efforts skip the scary bit entirely.

Think of it like this. If I was to go out looking for evidence that I was a ‘kind and generous person’ I’d be sure to find some. The harder I looked the more I’d find. But unless I also look for evidence that I’m not a kind and generous person – not just a lack of evidence of the former, but actual evidence of the latter – then I’m rigging the results.

So with both of these things in mind – the idea that we’ll do harm, and the idea that we need to actively look for this, here’s a good question:

Is this intervention, at this point, doing more good than harm or more harm than good, and how long will this continue to be the case?


See also:

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