The CEO is stepping down after a decade of leading the MNC. She oversaw billions of dollars of revenue and profit growth. She was feted globally by folks from different walks of life. A lady CEO, turnaround artist, visionary leader and so on.
The politician passed away. Millions mourned his death. He was elected to office multiple times and won all elections he contested in. He raised the stature of his people and culture. A fiery politician, people’s leader, visionary statesman and so on.
The CEO leaves behind a giant ship negotiating turbulent waters. Many markets and consumers are slowly turning against its traditional products, which the company has marketed successfully for decades. The products are not only deemed unhealthy, but their manufacturing has led to environmental imbalances in many parts of the world. Slowing revenue & profit growth and increasing consumer resistance has forced the company to change its strategy. Did the CEO and her predecessors foresee the dire health & environment consequences of their business? Or were the consequences unintended?
The politician leaves behind a mixed legacy. Even as many laud him for his many ideas and actions which have helped the state prosper, shadows of corruption and greed linger. The politician was a fiery idealist in his younger days. Power made him less ideal. He did good for his people, but possibly enriched himself along the way. His party is cleaning up its act & image in a bid to appeal to a more aware and vocal electorate. Did he, as a young idealist politician, foresee the compromises he would have to make in his latter political career and the consequences? Or were the consequences unintended?
The law of unintended consequences says actions of people always have effects that are unanticipated and unintended. The effects may be good or bad. And the effects are compounded (multiplied manifold) as we are part of a complex interconnected system. A very small change can create a significantly large, different and unintended outcome, in different places & at different times.
The more we act, more the unintended consequences and outcomes. Sometimes, such consequences and outcomes are not revealed to us immediately or even in the near term, thereby denying a feedback using which we could correct ourselves, even though any such correction may little help to roll back the forces unleashed.
Throughout our lives we act and try to change ourselves, our families, neighborhood, community, city, country and the world, in small and big ways. We continuously refine our ideas of how each of these entities should be and act to bridge the gap. The law of unintended consequences works more feverishly as our actions impact entities further away from ourselves, gathering momentum due to the compounding/multiplier effect. Thus, our actions to change our city or organization could have larger unintended consequences than our actions to change our neighborhood or community. Of course, the consequences can be both good & bad. But the random and uncertain nature of the unintended consequences should make us wary of actions that tamper with complex interconnected systems.
Legislation, policies, laws, regulations, business practices, global trade etc. will always have far-reaching unintended consequences & outcomes, because they impact large and complex interconnected systems. After a few centuries of industrialization, urbanization, & consumerism, we are now facing unintended consequences such as perverse income inequality, climate change, etc. Many of us overweigh the positive outcomes and convince ourselves of our abilities to overcome these challenges by using newer ideas, tools & techniques. But the fact that these were unintended consequences cannot be disputed. Deploying newer ideas & techniques targeting large complex systems will have further large unintended consequences.
To reduce unintended consequences, we need to limit ourselves to actions which impact ourselves personally, at the individual level. Once our actions start impacting entities further away from ourselves, like our families, organizations, neighborhood, community etc., the law of unintended consequences starts working overtime.
It is difficult to limit our actions when we live in an interconnected society. Many of our actions may impact multiple entities simultaneously. The banker may rigorously evaluate and sanction a loan to the businessman, who in turn may manufacture useful & desirable products which, after a decade of successful growth & adoption globally, may eventually turn out to be a health hazard or environmentally disastrous. Who is at fault? The upright banker, or the sincere businessman, or the undiscerning consumer, or the unsuspecting regulatory authority? None of them. The banker and the businessman, through their actions, just unleashed the law of unintended consequences. The unintended outcomes impacted the entire society.
We try to limit such unintended consequences by having rules, regulations, laws, legislations etc. But history tells us no individual or group has enough foresight to visualize all possible consequences of any action, especially when such actions impact large complex systems.
So, should we just stay put and not act at all? What will happen to our growth, progress & development? Won’t we just stagnate, or perhaps even regress?
The optimal action with least unintended consequences & outcomes is that which impacts only ourselves, at the individual level. Once we start indulging in acts which impact systems outsides ourselves (starting with our families, organizations, communities and so on), unintended consequences start compounding.
Any change we want to see in the world has to start with ourselves first, and perhaps end there.
But that’s easier said than done.