Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 30, 2018
Nearly all of us have heard the term “unintended consequences,” but we may not be aware of how to avoid them. In February 2018, in the publication The Library of Economics and Liberty, Robert Norton wrote, “The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people – and especially of government – always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.”
When the unintended consequence of a decision is favorable, there is never an issue. The favorable outcome is considered a bonus. When the unintended consequence is adverse, depending on its impact, the decision-making process is questioned, as is the leader who made the decision.
In his article, Norton wrote about sociologist Robert Merton, who in 1935 identified the causes of unintended consequences – three of which are in the control of the decision maker. I would like to focus on these three causes: ignorance, error and immediacy of interest.
Ignorance and error
In both of these cases, leaders make decisions on issues without considering the unintended consequences, or before needed information is obtained. These are decisions that are not well thought out nor operationalized.
During my tenure as the CEO of our company, I sat through meetings at which the management of a business unit presented their plan to enter a new market without any consideration of the unintended consequence of a competitive response and how it would impact our company’s market entry.
I would ask, is the market growing at a sufficient rate to absorb a new supplier without a competitive response? Will competitors respond by price cutting, or in a different way? What differentiates our product in the marketplace to limit a competitive response? Why would customers switch buying from their incumbent supplier and decide to buy from our company?
How competitors might respond to a new market entry is unknown. A leader will often need to make a decision, but the information desired to make a fully informed decision is not available. Before making that decision, effective leaders listen to the opinions of their experts and they fall back on their own experience, common sense and good critical judgment. This is how they de-risk a decision and minimize the chance of unintended consequences.
Immediacy of interest
Merton describes the type of decision where “someone wants the intended consequence of an action so much that he purposefully chooses to ignore any unintended effects,” to the peril of the decision maker and the organization.
NASA’s decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986 against the advice of the Thiokol engineers is an example of a decision driven by immediacy of interest. NASA had promised Congress a too aggressive and unrealistic launch frequency. The pressure to meet this schedule resulted in a catastrophic decision to launch the Challenger in adverse temperature conditions, well below the ambient temperature for which the solid rocket booster O-rings were designed.
Upon hearing Thiokol’s recommendation to delay the launch due to risks to the astronauts and the shuttle, one of the NASA officials stated, “I am appalled by your recommendation.” Another NASA official stated, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch – next April?” NASA launched Challenger, and shortly after the launch the O-rings failed, resulting in an explosion and the catastrophic deaths of seven astronauts and loss of the shuttle.
What is the cause of immediacy of interest type decisions? Certainly, hubris is one cause. Dictionary.com defines hubris as “excessive pride or self-confidence, arrogance. Arrogant leaders are rarely if ever successful over the long term.
Another cause of immediacy of interest decisions is the pressure to act, which in and of itself is a way of achieving results. However, at what risk and at what cost? How many times do we read in the press about unethical or illegal acts that were committed due to the pressure to get something done? These situations eventually almost always become public, adversely impacting the reputations of the individuals and organizations involved. The reputations of organizations recover over time. Those of the individuals never do.
How do you avoid immediacy of interest decisions? If you are the boss, set high expectations for achieving great results, but make it clear to the organization that it must be done in an honest and ethical manner. No other way is acceptable.
Surround yourself with people who will tell you what they think, not what you want to hear. Listen to your experts. They know more about the unintended consequences than you do. And remember, what you do reflects not only on you, but on your organization and your colleagues as well. Don’t let them down.
Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.