How did that happen?

13/04/2016
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The Law of Unintended Consequences is a general theory encompassing the many ways in which an implemented change can have unforeseen effects. These can be positive, negative or, as in the most famously cited examples, specifically negative in that they exacerbate the exact problem the change was intended to solve. It’s a law that can only really be understood in hindsight but one which serves as a great warning for anyone thinking of implementing change (however small) to stop and think of potential outcomes.

The Cobra Effect describes the third subset of unintended consequences and derives its name from a most likely fictional episode in Colonial India. According to the anecdote, British authorities, alarmed by the prevalence of venomous cobras in Delhi, paid reward money in exchange for dead snakes. Enterprising locals then started farming cobras to get rich from the reward money. Once the government was alerted to this practice the rewards were stopped, and consequently large numbers of now worthless snakes were released from their farms, increasing the local cobra population dramatically.

A real life example of this effect was the local government’s attempt to reduce traffic pollution in Mexico City by allocating different number plates to different days. As you could only drive on a certain day with a corresponding number plate, locals bought up cheap old cars in order to own a vehicle for each day with the correct plates. The same numbers were driving and, now that they were driving older cars the pollution levels became worse.

These interventions made the situation worse and there are other occasions when implementing a change has led to a completely new problem, such as the introduction of cane toads to Australia to combat a pest problem who themselves became a different type of pest. However, as these issues are only obvious with hindsight, is there anything to be learnt from them? Obviously you can’t foresee the unforeseen, but the moral of these tales has to be to give serious, serious thought to any change you have in mind.

You can’t anticipate every outcome, but thorough research can never hurt. Some of the most common negative unforeseen consequences these days occur from ill thought out social media strategies. Social media is a valuable and essential platform for any business and it is a platform which gives a potential audience of billions the opportunity to connect with you. A potential audience of billions; not all of whom are necessarily ‘on your side’.

Waitrose, Macdonald’s, the NYPD and many other businesses and organisations have had Twitter campaigns backfire when users ‘hijacked’ their hashtags to ridicule and complain. Social media is a public forum and, like a canny politician who knows the prevailing opinion before he calls for the vote, you need to have a good idea of how you are publicly perceived before asking open questions about your product or service.

We can all suffer from confirmation bias, hearing only the responses we want to when sounding out an idea for change. However, this is no excuse not to seek out external opinions from trusted advisors. If you happen to be a trusted advisor then it is vitally important that you provide honest feedback, as you may well have spotted the potential pitfalls that your client has not. You can’t escape unforeseen consequences but you can try to foresee as many as possible.

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