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Not according to plan

NOT ALL SOLUTIONS to problems work according to plan. (Of course, you must first define the problem properly.) The “Law of Unintended Consequences”…




NOT ALL SOLUTIONS to problems work according to plan. (Of course, you must first define the problem properly.) The “Law of Unintended Consequences” in economics states that the most carefully studied policies and plans, when implemented, can have unexpected outcomes. And this phenomenon is not limited to economic matters.

The introduction of toads in Australia as an ecologically sound solution to eliminate insects that harmed crops, without resorting to toxic pesticides. However, this approach resulted in the toads multiplying and developing into a worse environmental nuisance than the insects they ate. One pest just replaced another.

There is another case of harmful predators at one time in British India — the plague of cobras. The government decided to stamp out the snakes with a bounty system of buying cobra skins in exchange for cash. What happened? The bounty system became so successful as a cash generator for the natives that cobra farms started to sprout up. When the government discovered that the cobra had become a cash crop, they discontinued the bounty system, forcing the erstwhile snake farmers to abandon their cobra farms and let the snakes loose. This effort to curb the snake population with cash rewards for their elimination had the unintended effect of worsening the cobra scourge.

In history, the Treaty of Versailles imposed punitive reparations on Germany after it lost World War I. The policy of rendering the defeated country unable to wage war due to the economic burden of the reparations had the unintended effect of arousing a feeling of betrayal and shame on the Germans. This gave rise to the obscure Bavarian politician Adolf Hitler preaching against the humiliation and raising the prospect of a second war.

Because plans have unexpected twists and turns, could they be tested first on a small scale to see how they would work?

Companies make use of the pilot project. For a restaurant trying to attract the fastidiously healthy crowd of vegans, the shift needs to be taken in small steps. Will the consumers like a vegetarian menu? Why not try out a promo on avocado on toast and fruit platters? It’s best to add new items rather than replace the roasted pork belly that may be the top seller in the restaurant.

When banks first introduced ATMs, they installed them in a few branches to allow the customers to test the technology as a convenient alternative to lining up to withdraw cash from the teller. We take for granted the current proliferation of ATMs and the habit of remembering our PINs for withdrawals. And the tellers don’t have to remember the names of our children.

Management changes, like promotions, reorganizations, reassignments, and even early retirements can be fed to the grapevine intentionally. The coffee server is allowed to eavesdrop while serving cream tarts. This informal method of testing the impact of changes is known as “socializing” an issue. Surprise is supposed to be eliminated and the probable reaction prepared for. But does a negative reaction (like faint screams) really change management plans? Hardly.

Norman Mailer in his book on astronauts, A Fire on the Moon (1970), muses that dreams too are a form of simulation. When we dream of losing somebody we love, we feel the pain such a loss would bring, thereby preparing us for such a future shock.

There is too the unintended consequence of greater scrutiny of one’s private life that good fortune and high visibility can bring. The media hunger for new spins in a historic sports achievement or cabinet appointment makes them dig deeper into personal histories including romantic liaisons and dubious business deals.

Intrusive media rationalize their undue interest in a new celebrity’s private life with the declaration that he is now subject to public scrutiny. The voyeuristic public has the “right to gnaw.” So, news interest tends to cover gossip and the dark side of a previously unknown personality now on the spotlight.

Still, we cannot prepare for all the possible consequences of our decisions. We can only accept them and change course if necessary. And even that directional change will have its own consequences. We can try to develop resilience for whatever comes our way.

Not all unintended consequences anyway are unpleasant. The favorable outcomes we can even claim credit for… as all part of the plan.


Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda

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