The idea for this has been percolating for a while, but it finally managed to escape my head. I do not guarantee it’s complete or usable, but here is my attempt to map out the tension between intention and outcome. Suggestions for improvement are most welcome.
The reason for this map is to examine the landscape within which people operate, especially as it relates to social good. I’ve never been completely comfortable with the idea that “it’s the thought that counts,” because clearly there are situations in which this is not true. Nor am I comfortable simply dismissing good intentions entirely, as in, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." And while this map doesn't answer the question, perhaps it can be useful in examining our own behaviors.
When I first set out to make a map some months ago, I started with a 2x2 grid. It didn’t take me long to realize that 2x2 was not granular enough to work with, because there is significant ambiguity in this space. Since then I have settled on a 3x3 grid, which I present below.
Let’s deconstruct this a bit.
Some things should stand out immediately. The upper right corner is green, the lower left corner is red, and the middle box is white (transparent). The rest of the squares are the default blue color from Google Drawings. Thus there are three general categories of interactions here: unambiguous (red/green), invisible (white or transparent) and ambiguous.
My working assumptions are these:
- Any situation will be approached with intentions on a continuum between good intentions and bad intentions. At the ends of the continuum, actions are undertaken on purpose for a specific goal. In the center is a neutral intention, which usually just means no particular goal was in mind when the action was taken, or the action taken was accidental.
- The result of an action measures along a continuum between better outcomes and worse outcomes. At the ends of this continuum are results that can definitely be said to have improved or worsened the situation. In the center is the neutral or negligible outcome, which usually means neither benefit nor detriment.
- Good Intention, Better Outcome (GI/BO): I would call this good-hearted with positive results. In situations that need changing, it is the best possible outcome, and the one all people with good intentions will strive to meet. For lack of a better word, I will call this Saintly.
- Bad Intention, Worse Outcome (BI/WO): People who engage in this kind of behavior regularly fit most working definitions of evil, or mean-spirited. Otherwise it’s just acting in a mean or spiteful way. This is Deliberate Successful Sabotage.
- Neutral Intention, Neutral Outcome (NI/NO): There is nothing particularly mindful about actions undertaken here, and since the results do not change a situation, there’s little to examine from a values perspective. Probably a great number of actions fall into this category.
The rest of the items create significant ambiguity by way of either self-negation, inconsequentiality, or simple mindlessness. These form the sub-categories of the ambiguous item set.
- Good Intention, Worse Outcome (GI/WO): Due to gross misunderstanding, significant blind-spots, or some other reason, efforts to improve a situation have made it worse. This one can be termed Mind Your Own Business.
- Bad Intention, Better Outcome (BI/BO): Due to gross misunderstanding, significant blind-spots, or some other reason, efforts to worsen a situation have had the reverse effect. This one can be termed Total Backfire. The Streisand Effect is an example of how this works in practice.
- Good Intention, Neutral Outcome (GI/NO): Willingness to do something good exceeds understanding of the situation, or the effort simply fails with no other consequence. Also known as Despite My Best Effort.
- Bad Intention, Neutral Outcome (BI/NO): Willingness to do something bad exceeds understanding of the situation, or the effort simply fails with no other consequence. Also known as No Harm No Foul.
- Neutral Intention, Better Outcome (NI/BO): Action not deliberately targeted at the situation manages to improve it, usually due to ignorance of the situation or as an incomplete understanding of unintended consequences. Also termed Happy Accident.
- Neutral Intention, Worse Outcome (NI/WO): Action not deliberately targeted at the situation manages to make it worse, usually due to ignorance of the situation or as an incomplete understanding of unintended consequences. Also termed Squished Bug.