“Unscripted” – When New Understandings are an Unexpected Outcome

As explored at a recent Hub webinar, mental health promotion can be messy! Even the best articulated participant recruitment strategies, project implementation plans, data collection procedures, and evaluation protocols do not always unfold according to plan. When those unexpected situations arise, what can we do with them?

There is an abundance of academic literature that explores what can happen when research plans go awry, but very little data that addresses when mental health promotion plans may be unfeasible, often for reasons beyond our control. Perhaps part of the reason is that health promotion relies heavily on people, relationships, and is contextual, all of which are fluid and evolving. The presence of the recent pandemic added to this uncertainty and often, the best laid plans had to pivot on a moment’s notice.

What do we do when new insights lie outside of the margins of our well-conceived plans? Do we discard the new insights? See them as mistakes to be forgotten? Are there ways to mitigate the potential impact of those events? Or as Jason Hughes, Anna Tarrant and Kahryn Hughes (2021) ask, do they lead us to new ways of thinking about public engagement? These social researchers argue that while good planning can help minimize common pitfalls, mistakes can never be entirely eradicated. What is more important is that we commit to learning ‘as we go’ and pivot our thinking to use unintended situations to facilitate conversations toward new innovations, new ways of thinking or new insights.

In our May webinar, projects from the Mental Health Promotion Innovation Fund (MHP-IF) shared examples of the unexpected that ultimately added a richer dimension to understanding. You can read more about the webinar in this Event Brief. By hearing and sharing these ‘wayward’ stories, we highlighted the benefits of flexible and adaptive approaches to project implementation and evaluation in the relatively new field of health promotion. Green and Glasgow (2006) called for researchers to intentionally look for ‘gaps,’ meaning when our health promotion plans do not quite reach our intended outcomes. Rather than ignore these spaces, lets collectively embrace these opportunities to grow, learn and flourish with each other.


Green, L. W., & Glasgow, R. E. (2006). Evaluating the Relevance, Generalization, and Applicability of Research: Issues in External Validation and Translation Methodology. Evaluation & the Health Professions, 29(1), 126–153.