That’s right. It’s your fault that giant spider is living in your home. Do you know why? Because that means you have enough other bugs there for that giant spider to live the fat life.
Well, it’s not exactly your fault. But you certainly contributed to creating a friendly environment for that spider. You wanted a roof over your head? Well, so did that spider (and, more importantly, everything it’s been eating).
And do you know what? That spider might even be doing you a favor by keeping other pests in check (so put the fire down, you don’t necessarily have to burn the house down). That being said, it could also end up biting you, but let’s not jump to hasty conclusions.
That giant spider is your unintended consequence. And life is full of unintended consequences. Some of them turn out better than expected. And some of them end up with a house on fire.
Unintended consequences are problematic because they wouldn’t be unintended if we were able to foresee them. Otherwise, they’d just be desired or undesired outcomes. While we are pretty good at decision-making, we are all pressed for time and can only process so much information. And that limitation is where unintended consequences spawn from.
So what can we do about unintended consequences? Well, I find the answer “just be omniscient” to be pretty unsatisfying. Rather, it is important to be a good steward of risk (more on this in the next article). Briefly speaking, you need to:
- Know who is involved (including yourself) and why they are involved,
- Familiarize yourself with your situation’s circumstances,
- Predict how those involved might behave and what actions they might take, and
- Put it all together in the context of the system that you are in.
If you can become a good steward of risk, then you will be less likely to find yourself with unintended consequences. And if you do come across unintended consequences, you will be more prepared to act with confidence to mitigate the bad ones, and leverage the good ones.
“On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B,” by Steven Kerr, is a classic article about (often unintended) outcomes created by fouled up reward systems that reward undesired behaviors, while not rewarding (and sometimes discouraging) desired behaviors. Check it out, and think about areas of your life where you’ve been hoping for one outcome, while quietly encouraging a different one altogether.
Kerr, S. (1995). On the Folly of Rewarding A, while Hoping for B. The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005), 9(1), 7-14. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4165235
For more resources, or if you have some you’d like to recommend, contact me.