Tag Archives: unanticipated consequences

The Oops Factor– When Well-Intended Actions Produce Unintended Consequences, and Unforeseen Outcomes…

They pop-up everywhere– the unintended, unanticipated, unforeseen. outcomes from well-intended purposeful decisions and actions. History is littered with organizations that failed or even excelled because of unintended consequences… The Law of Unintended Consequences states that most actions have at least one unintended consequence. In other words, each decision or action may have more than one effect, including unforeseen effects… But the concept is less of a law or rule and more of a call to decision-makers, to beware… According to Rob Norton; the law of unintended consequences is often cited but rarely defined and leaders have heeded its power for decades, but many have largely ignored it…

Decisions have intended as well as unintended consequences. According to Ruth Winett; before making strategic decisions try to anticipate the consequences of actions– think through the chain of events a decision is likely to trigger… Talk with customers, employees, experts… and try to gain insight about potential unintended consequences of a decision and its outcomes. Then decide if the action is worth the consequences… Too often organizations make strategic decisions, then surprised by its consequences. Remember, what may seem rational in moment may have far-reaching unintended consequences that can negate a well-intended and seemingly reasonable decision…

In the article Unintended Consequences by Rodger Dean Duncan writes: Unintended consequences is the handy term for outcomes that are not the ones foreseen by a purposeful act, e.g.; in medicine, unintended consequences are called ‘side-effects’– list of unintended effects for a drug is often longer than the narrative that promote it…  A well-intended action can be risky… According to Isaac Newton; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Most every action you take has the potential for consequences you didn’t anticipate… Most decisions come with no guarantees, but there is also the reality that failing to make a decision, is a decision and it has consequences. Here are a few tips that might help:

  • Decide what to decide: Many decisions can and should be delegated to others… and that enables you to focus on those decisions that legitimately require your focus…
  • Be collaboratively independent: Confer with subject-matter experts, but avoid getting mired in decision-by-committee. Solicit views of credible sources but be prepared to own the decision…
  • Avoid information bloat: Information overload can lead to analysis paralysis, which can lead to fuzzy thinking and faulty decisions. Keep it simple…
  • Define your desired outcome: To the extent possible, clarify what the specific outcome must look like… Create boundaries that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-related…

In the article Unintended Consequences by Michael K. Shaub writes: When you make decisions, it’s tempting to think short-term and to constrain yourself in terms of potential unintended consequences. There are couple reasons: First, short-term consequences are the most identifiable; they are the easiest to anticipate… Second, long-term consequences are less identifiable and carry greater risk for unintended consequences… However one thing is for sure you cannot control everything that other people do and as long as other people are involved in a situation you can never be quite sure of the outcome… Just because there is a comprehensive plan of action that does not mean that the intended consequences will result… variables that are out of your control may very well dictate the outcome…

In the article Unintended Consequences of Business Decisions by Josh Linkner writes: Too often business problems are solved impulsively, e.g.; you hastily install a new policy, offer a generous incentive, add another step to the production process, cut prices, reduce quality to save costs… These type changes or adjustment are duct-tape solutions and they rarely stand the test of time… like the fable of the little Dutch boy who discovered a leak in the dike by putting his finger in the hole to stop the leak… but then a new leak sprung-out in another location… It’s about unforeseen issues that occur when you plug one problem and then a new one pops-up elsewhere…

It’s a dilemma: You act even though there are uncertainties and unknown consequences of your actions… and yet you must act for even to do nothing is to act… knowing that there will always be consequences… Change is an inherent part of business: Change is necessary; part of change is within your control and predictable; part of change is anticipating the unknown. You have a responsibility to act but you also have an obligation to accept, mitigate unintended, unforeseen consequences of your actions… Accepting responsibility for actions that were not intended is difficult but it’s there nonetheless…

Decision-makers must take time to think through all ramifications of their actions. The more strategic an action, the more thoughtfulness is required to make a effective decision… According to Chad Thiele; decisions are an imperfect art, and decision-makers must accept that with uncertainty there is always an– Oops factor… 

It’s realization that there are consequences with most decisions– some intended and others unintended… and the outcomes may not be exactly as anticipated… It’s important to continually– monitor, measure, adjust… Decisions have unintended consequences and, in turn, they impact still other decisions. they may also have unintended consequences… Act prudently: Beware of Unintended Consequences…    

Law of Unintended Consequences– Intended Action Leads to Perverse Outcome: Best Laid Plan– Unexpected Blowback…

Unintended consequences (or, unanticipated, unforeseen, unplanned… consequences) are outcomes that are not intended by a purposeful action, i.e., intended actions that are taken for a completely positive purpose… but have negative unexpected consequences that outweigh benefits of the intended actions, or in contrast, the unintended consequences can also have untended positive surprise outcomes…

According to Lucien Canton; decisions almost always have unintended consequences, no matter how you assess and analyze an action there’s always risk that the decision can produce unintended results that are never expected: Sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised, but most times you’re not… This concept has long existed, but was named and popularized in the 20th century by Robert K. Merton…

The Law of Unintended Consequences is an adage or idiomatic warning that interventions in business, government, society at large… always creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes… Unintended consequences are roughly grouped into three types: Positive–unexpected benefit… Negative–unexpected detrimental occurrence, in addition to the desired intended action… Perverse outcome contrary to what is originally intended–causes actions opposite to what was intended…

According to Rob Norton; Law of Unintended Consequences is often cited but rarely defined, and leaders have heeded its power for decades and, for many, they have largely ignored it…

law unintended consequences The Law of Unintended Consequences is always at work, everywhere… According to Andrew Rosenberger; history is littered with examples of unintended consequences – a term referring to the fact that decision-makers tend to make decisions that later have unforeseen outcomes… it pop-up everywhere…

Most modern technologies have negative consequences that are unavoidable, unpredictable… for example; almost all environmental problems– chemical pollution, global warming… are the unexpected consequences of the application of modern technology. Traffic congestion, injuries, accidents, air pollution… are unintended consequences of the automobile… Antibiotics ushered as magic cures for illness have unintended consequences from their resistance and side effects… Just about every law, invention, treaty, large-scale action… has unintended consequences. It’s a law that is often observed, at best, in hindsight…

The Law of Unintended Consequences is the outgrowth of many theories, but was probably best defined by sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1936. Merton wrote the article, The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action, which covers five different ways that actions, particularly those that make large-scale decisions, such as; government, business… will have unexpected consequences.

These reactions may be; positive, negative, merely neutral, but they do veer-off from the intent of the initial action. Although Merton wrote the article 75 years ago, it remarkably applies to today’s complex corporate life. The Law of Unintended Consequences must be considered when making any major decision: Not to try to create absolute certainty, but at least to look before you leap… Merton’s five possible causes of unintended consequences are:

  • Ignorance: Since it’s impossible to anticipate everything, we accept incomplete analysis before we start… Issue: the biggest reason for failing projects.
  • Error: Assuming that what worked in the past will still work today and tomorrow… Issue: if you don’t innovate and adapt, you will decline and die.
  • Immediate interest: Jumping on short-term goals which may contradict intended long-term effects… Issue: why most performance based incentive programs fail.
  • Basic values: People react to things based upon in grown, empirical and ‘safe’ values. Change may prohibit or distress these actions… Issue: why most change projects fail since change of basic values requires a long-term effort.
  • Self-defeating prophecy: Finding solutions before the problem occurs and when the problem does not occurs we are surprised… Issue: many implemented procedures to mitigate risks are more expensive than the actual risk.

Akin to Murphy’s Law, the Law of Unintended Consequences is a warning against the belief that you can control the world around you… But, What does all this have to do with business? It’s just an anecdote to highlight the need to always be measuring the results of your strategic decisions, and to look for the effects of the unintended consequences… In business, many strategic decisions, tactical actions… are taken, but once taken leaders and managers need to continually measure results, and ensure that the intended actions are having the intended outcomes…

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In the article Law of Unintended Consequences by Marcia Zidl writes: We live and lead in a complex world with a ‘mess’ of relationships, interactions… which means that everything interacts with everything else. The Law of Unintended Consequences holds that almost all human actions have at least one unintended consequence. In other words, each decision, action we take can have multiple unintended effect, including; unforeseen, undesirable… outcomes… a solution to one problem can create another. 

Leaders cannot fully control the world around them, but they can control– how problems are solved, how decisions are made, what  actions are implemented… so here are a few steps that can avoid or at least mitigate, unanticipated and possible negative outcomes in decision-making:

  • Get out of your ivory tower: Make sure people on the team have a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds who can point out situations, opinions, key stakeholders that are not on the radar screen.
  • Don’t dismiss devil advocates: They are not all disruptive. By  being critical or taking an unpopular stance around certain issues, they may be identifying dangers you haven’t  thought through.
  • Play out every scenario: Anticipate who will be affected and what their possible reactions might be – from total delight to grudging acceptance to quiet sabotage to a social media uproar. Remember, what may seem rational to you can be considered totally unreasonable to others.
  • Take a break: Don’t be rushed into a decision because someone, something is pushing you. Stop, go for a walk, have a meal or a fun activity. Consider bringing in an outsider to help you and the team– identify, understand the many facets of the situation before making a decision.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: Develop a plan to make sure information about the decision moves quickly up, down, across the organization. Be alert to outside key forces– whether the media, industry analyst, other companies… We live in a totally connected world that communicates instantly, often…

In the article Law of Unintended Consequences by Alex Tabarrok writes: The Law of Unintended Consequences is what happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system… Political systems are simple, they operate with limited information (i.e., rational ignorance), short time horizons, low feedback, poor and misaligned incentives…  Business in contrast is a complex system that involves; high-feedback, incentive-driven activities. When a simple system tries to regulate a complex system it usually results in unintended consequences…

These unintended consequences not only affect government’s regulation of business, but can also when government tries to regulate other complex systems, such as, society itself… The fact that unintended consequences of government regulation are usually (but not always or necessarily) negative is not an accident– when regulation pushes against incentives, incentives tend to push back creating unintended consequences.

Not all regulation push against incentives, some regulations try to change incentives but incentives are complex, and constraints change so even incentive-driven regulations can have unintended consequences. Does this mean that government should never try to regulate complex systems? No, of course not, but it does mean that regulators should be humble and the hurdle for regulation should be high…

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In the article Unintended Consequences of Good Intentions by Matthew Badgley writes: There have been plenty of times when the teams I’ve worked on have made a well-intentioned decision that we later looked back and realized that the decision resulted in some unintended consequences. The good thing about these situations is that we usually learned from these situations. Some of the things learned are:

  • Always have an end goal in mind when making a decision. Even a quick decision should have some desired result whether positive or negative (hopefully positive).
  • With that goal in mind, revisit it on a regular basis near the time the decision is made. What I mean by this is that a decision that is made and then revisited six months later has either been rooted in or already rotted and nothing but a bad taste in the mouth.
  • When revisiting, there should be three directions in mind that you can take – stay the course, adjust, and abandon for another brilliant decision.
  • When you realize the unintended consequences, don’t look to lay blame or worse yet become overly reactionary. Instead, remain calm, asses the position of the decision against the goal and make a new decision.
  • Learn from the past decisions, and keep moving forward. Don’t dwell too long on a loss or a win – there’s always another opportunity around the corner. There’s an emotional aspect to winning and losing, make sure that you don’t let these emotions get in the way of deciding the right next steps.

In the article Unintended Consequences of Change by Jay Morris writes: Make sure your speed of change doesn’t exceed your capacity to change… Managing change isn’t easy. Sometimes leaders try to change their organizations too fast. They want to do everything all at once. But too much change can crash an organization… This brings to mind what I would call the first law of change: Change can have unintended consequences

Of course, there are plenty of CEOs who make big, bold changes to improve an organization… while others take change slowly… So what’s the right pace for change? Some have argued for a balanced, Goldilocks approach to change management: Not too much, not too little; not too fast, not too slow– just right amount of change to fit an organization. In other words, the speed of change shouldn’t exceed the organization’s  capacity for change… Leaders must walk a fine line, or suffer the unintended consequences…

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Does principle of unintended consequences mean we must never strive to achieve high goals for fear of causing some horrible things to happen around us? Of course not. We can, however, take the time to think through the long-term ramifications of our decisions. The bigger the decision, the more thought that should go into it.

According to Chad Thiele; we don’t live in a perfect world, and we cannot always identify potential problems before they exist… hence, it’s important to continually monitor, measure business efforts and make adjustments, whenever necessary… every decision has an effect on other areas of the business… each business decision has unintended consequences. According to Charles Pearson; many people don’t pay attention to the unintended consequences, for example; some simply don’t know about the unintended consequences… some make an incorrect calculation which causes them to poorly predict the consequences of their actions… some know about the unintended consequences but care more about the intended consequences to suffer through the unintended ones…

The Law of Unintended Consequences has a feeble linguistic claim on the term ‘law’. It is hardly a scientific law; even Murphy’s law and natural law claim specific outcomes with some certainty. But the term persists as a solemn warning that almost all human actions have at least one unintended consequence, most of the time… In other words, each cause has more than one effect, which most likely includes; an unforeseen effects… Unintended consequences are less– law, rule… and more of a call to decision-makers, to beware.