Law of Unintended Consequences

There actually is a law like this and the definition is:

In the social sciences, unintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen or intended by a purposeful action.” The term was popularised by American Socialogist Robert K. Merton.

It is interesting right? And what’s even more interesting is that this law is operating all the time in our lives. Whether it is work or personal life, there are always unintended consequences.

Some consequences we are aware of, and some we don’t even realise. But there are far reaching effects of some decisions we take. Not all unintended consequences are directly impacting us or even indirectly. So we don’t bother about them.

We have been taught to think in a linear fashion. No matter how much one reads about lateral thinking (and even that is in relation to us and what we do), our thinking is very linear. A to B to C and so on. Alphabets are linear so are numbers. Our verbal and numerical abilities are conditioned to think in a linear fashion.

We have faith and destiny to blame when our actions lead unintended consequences.

In business for instance, growth is the driver. All our attention is focused on growing, become bigger, becoming a market leader. So all our actions, our decisions are aimed towards growth (I won’t mention profit here since in the so called e-commerce, no one thinks profit).

Snapdeal for instance, grow, grow, grow was driving it. The founders were solely focused on growth, valuation and funding. Nobody stopped to think even for a moment as to what will happen if things go south. And things did go south. Unintended consequence? Layoffs. So many people suddenly out of job. So is the case with a whole lot of startups and the financial meltdown of 2008.

I have mentioned startups because that’s the burning issue right now but look through the history. Person who discovered all about atom, he would have been happy with the discovery. Would have gone to town talking about it. Would he have ever known that it will become a weapon?

Take politics for instance. When US was courting Osama, did they ever think that he will become a monster and turn back on them? He is gone but the turmoil remains.

The problem lies with us. While we talk about long term thinking, it never is long term. Monthly projections, quarterly projections, annual projections. Stops right there. Of course it would be foolish to think beyond a year in today’s dynamic world but still. Our actions and decisions are driven by short term impact. Long term is nice to talk about in boardrooms but it’s all about here and now.

Organisations don’t waste time in predictive models that will tell them impact of their decisions on a larger environment. Their models tell them about their business in the context of their industry, competition, economy and government regulations. They want a clear cut answers as to what will happen to their growth once they take a certain action. Doomsday scenarios are not in the interest of any strategy person or a consulting organisation. Not taking the unintended consequences into account is passed off as risk taking ability of the person or organisation.

It is our belief that we look at our decisions in the context of consequences. Never unintended consequences. It is not in our DNA. And let’s face it. We can’t keep track of every consequence of our action. Forget unintended, we can’t keep track of every single intended consequence either.

Typically, most of the unintended consequences are negative. Wonder why. I have been trying to think of examples that would show unintended consequence to be a happy one. Haven’t come across any. Would you know?

As always, I am putting this thought out there. Just a thought. To check what do people think of this topic.

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