Eugene Schieffelin was a New Yorker who had an intense love for the works of Shakespeare. In 1870, inspired by the starlings that were mentioned in “Henry VI”, he released 100 starlings in Central Park over a period two years. He hoped for them to survive and maybe breed. Unfortunately, his plan worked too well. The starlings multiplied exponentially and it is estimated that about 150 million starlings are living in the US. The problem is that they often destroy crops, they snatch food supplies from native birds, they cause fatal airplane crashes, they spread diseases, etc.
Schieffelin’s starlings are a nice example of so-called “unintended consequences”. We all know that our actions and decisions can have surprising consequences that are not at all related to our initial intentions. We are living in a world with ever more interconnected systems and because of the chaotic nature of our (business) environment, you can never do just one thing. So the potential for serious unintended consequences grows.
When the British government offered financial rewards for people who killed and turned in cobras in India, people – interested in the money - began breeding the snakes. However, once the reward programme was scrapped, the population of cobras in India rose as people released the ones they had raised (the same thing happened in Vietnam with rats). When the Tower of Pisa was built, it was – of course – intended to stand perfectly vertical. It took 200 years to complete the building. However, when the constructors added the 3rd floor, the poor foundations caused the building to lean to one side. The unexpected consequence is that the Leaning Tower of Pisa became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, bringing enormous revenue to the town.
So unintended consequences can sometimes be positive, sometimes negative. Sunken ships form coral reefs where wildlife thrives. That’s positive. But it can also be negative. Maria Anna Schicklgruber always wanted to have children. The unintended consequence was that her son, Adolf Hitler, became one of the biggest monsters of the 20th century.
In business life, unintended consequences also happen and we sometimes fail to see them. However, most unintended consequences are just unanticipated consequences. It’s not easy to eliminate them, but you can try to do so by inverting your thinking: consider what you want to avoid, not what you want to cause. So rather than always seeking perfection, we should sometimes avoid stupidity. If you detect unintended consequences, you can then work backward. Not easy, but if you don't try, you don't win ;)
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