The Law of Unintended Consequences

Let me tell you a story.

Some while ago, in a province in India, there was a problem with too many cobra snakes. Too many people were being bitten. So, the local officials decided to offer a price on the head of every cobra brought in dead to them. The policy seemed to be very successful and soon lots of dead cobras were being delivered to them. There were some clever people who looked at this and saw an opportunity. Instead of hoping they might find one of the dwindling supply of cobras, they decided to set up a business to breed cobras. They then would have a guaranteed supply of income. Smart business move. However, the local authorities were not impressed when they found out. Using tax-payers money to enrich a local business was not what they had intended. So, they shut down the scheme. Deprived of their income, the people running the cobra business also shut down – and released the cobras from their farm. Result: there were then More cobras in that province than when this all started.

I love this story and have had it earmarked for this article for some time. It so perfectly illustrates the point. I’m sure you can think of other examples from your working or home life when you’ve proceeded with the best of intentions with the aim of achieving an objective, but with less success than you’d hoped. It’s hard enough when you are dealing with inanimate objects, processes and suchlike. When you start dealing with people it moves to a completely new level.

What can you do to try to mitigate against the operation of this ‘Law’? Here are a few bullet-pointed suggestions

  • Clearly defined goals – work out what you want to achieve. Do you all agree on what the problem is that you are trying to fix? If not hammer that out or you will be fighting each other Make sure there is buy-in to make the pain and effort worthwhile.
  • Visualise the outcome – here I’m talking a bit more practical than the theoretical outcome when setting the goals. What will it look, smell and feel like? What is atmosphere in the business going to like once you have reached the end? Then you have a chance of defining what success looks like. What would you intend to do next?
  • Think through the journey – it might be that what you are proposing is a simple change in policy – or it might be a project or a process change. Whatever it is, walk yourself through it: as yourself, as the person you are asking to do this, as colleagues who might be affected. Then think it through again asking yourself if there might be any unintended consequences that might work counter to your objectives (there could be some that might be collateral benefits – let’s not forget the potential positives)
  • Take it too the Streets – by this I mean that, bright as you are, you may not see all the angles. You are nearly always stronger working as a team. Be sure to bring into the testing people from all levels of the organisation. You might be surprised by the insight that they bring. It could also be your best way of picking up potential damaging unintended consequences that could cause collateral damage. Much of this might be perception. It might seem a wrong perception, but if it’s there, it is real and its impact will need to be considered when assessing how to proceed. Better you know before than after it has wrecked your chances of success.
  • Measure & Learn – how do you know how you’re doing if you don’t measure? So, you’ll need to define parameters against which you can measure. You’ll need to decide how you will gather the data to measure. There may be verification issues. There may be data storage issues. How often do you measure? How do you present the data? You should think this all through before you start. If gathering the data is going to be a very onerous, you are likely to get less data and less good data. I’m a great believer in evidenced-based decision making. Otherwise, where is the objectivity? Will you just be doing this at the end, or will you be doing this at intermediary stages? Once you have analysed the data, build into your process a time for reflection and learning to improve. Take the time & effort to write it up and reflect on it. I appreciate that this is quite a scientific approach. Normally lawyers shy away from this sort of thing. But I would argue that the rigour is important for your business. Then take the learnings, discuss and ask ‘How can we improve’. That’s when the work starts. Tedious, but it’s how you get yourself into a ‘Continuous Improvement Loop’.
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