Tripwires and Cascades

Understanding triggers and consequences tied to them is one way to shape our ability to shape change and its outcomes.

There are certain relationships that are filled with tripwires. It might be a decision, it might be a use of a phrase, or it could be a singular events.

Tripwires and cascades are two sides of the same coin: they focus our attention on events and the interconnections that create subsequent changes in our systems.

Greg Satell has looked at the role of cascades in his recent book and how network effects can produce waves of activity from a single or series of interconnected events. Clusters of events, such as those associated with the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, can lead to an enormous shift in the entire system. Understanding these events and what comes from them becomes all the more important for anyone looking to create change, innovate, and evaluate.

Cause and Consequence

A tripwire is a special type of event: it’s something that was designed to produce an effect if triggered. Stock markets have such things built into them and so do communities. Sometimes organizations have them, too. These are the lines that, once crossed, invoke a set of reactions. These might be policies, procedures, or they may be unconscious reactions. This is the ‘you’ve gone too far’ situation.

A cascade is both a steep drop (waterfall) and a sequence of events that influence each other, just like water itself. This is what comes after the tripwire has been crossed. What’s interesting about a cascade is that there are many effects tied to a single ’cause’ or prompt, yet the relationship between these effects may not always be visible or could be partially obscured. These all have consequences regardless and are worth paying attention to.

Why and How?

A tripwire can be something set in place by a set of values, practices, procedures, or customs. It’s not always automatic, but it’s partly predictable once you understand that something is a tripwire. Past practice can be an indicator. Ask yourself: when X has happened before, what happened? Is there a pattern of activity that has come from that? And is that activity tied to certain clusters of outcomes in a manner that is nearly predictable?

To illustrate, consider New Years and the resolutions that come around that time (or substitute this for any organizations’ 5-year planning cycle). These can be tripwires because they are precipitated by events that precede them and are predictable in their outcomes. Someone fails to achieve all they wanted to in a year, resolves to make big changes, commits fully to the idea of change, fails to act, unleashing a discouragement and self-defeating behaviours which continue or exacerbates the original problem. The end of the calendar year is the tripwire and the cascade is the set of actions that can come from it. We have these built into our culture — work, social, and community — and they have real effects.

Not all cascades are spirals like the one above, but they are examples of interconnected consequences tied to an event. We commit to change, fail, beat ourselves up for it, and then repeat the pattern. COVID-19 has flipped tripwires associated with housing, productivity (and worker surveillance), and others. By understanding the connection between the event and the cascade of effects from it we can better examine the potential tripwires set around our businesses, workplaces, communities, and systems.

COVID-19 has set off a series of tripwires.

From an evaluation perspective, we can better tie together a real theory of change that explains how and why something came about, which allows us to better understand the connections between causes, consequences, and the systems around them.

The more we understand these connections the better we can work with cascades and to prevent tripwires (or set more positive ones).

Photo by Carlos Lindner on Unsplash and by Mike Lewis HeadSmart Media on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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