The Myth of Unintended Consequences

A quote that rings in my ears from time to time, especially when I get caught out in the rain, is: “There is no such thing as bad weather — only a poor choice of clothes.” I’m not certain where I heard it first but I’m going to attribute it to my colleague Taylor’s mother.

In business, politics, or our personal lives we often hear much hand-wringing and excuse-making about unintended consequences. Today I offer you a more pragmatic view: “There are no such things as unintended consequences — only a poor choice of solutions.” After looking at a couple examples, I’ll suggest how you can help your team avoid unintended consequences by:

  • developing a more robust understanding of the problem and the system that governs whether the problem occurs
  • executing effective trial solutions, and then leading change effectively at full-scale

Recently, a few examples of unintended consequences in the news have reminded me of other historical examples. Copenhagen is trying to get more of its residents to commute using bicycles. At the same time, concerned advocacy groups also started promoting bicycle safety through helmet use. What happened? Ridership dropped. Let’s look quickly at a few more examples for reference:

As leaders, we all understand that the future is uncertain and “the ideal time to make a decision is never” (see diagram).

The ideal time to make a decision is … never. Increase your certainty in decision making by steepening your team’s learning curve with a structured approach.

Over time, we gain more and more information about the system and can be more certain. The slope of this curve depends on the method we use to understand the system — and sadly many teams rely on nothing more than brainstorming. For more about using a structured approach to understand a system quickly, read my previous post challenging the effectiveness of “5 Whys.”

When it comes trialing solutions and then managing change, there are countless “proven models” to follow. Two resources I can recommend are:

  1. John Kotter’s Leading Change — straightforward and timeless
  2. The Build Network has concise, informative articles targeting senior leaders in rapidly growing business. One example is about mapping a business model before you improve it.

Do you believe in unintended consequences? have you busted the myth? Leave a comment!


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