The law of unintended consequences
The law of unintended consequences
When you’re running a business like a typical dentist, in the directional mode of “do this, then that”, what happens?

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, wrote Robert Burns. They do so because the law of unintended consequences means it is difficult to anticipate the effects of our actions.

This law has been appreciated since at least John Locke, the 17th century philosopher who discussed the unintended consequences of interest rate regulation in a letter to an MP. It was popularised in the 20th century by the sociologist Robert K Merton who grouped it into benefits, drawbacks and perverse results, when an intended solution makes a problem worse.

Isn’t there something charmingly human about that? It feels like our destiny as individuals, families, regions and countries is built from of these benefits, drawbacks and perverse results. We can only change what we perceive and understand.

We’ve written about the perils of ignoring information a lot — it’s probably our greatest obsession at Hive. We often warn that ignorance is bliss. Dan illustrated this by using the fox hunting debate to show how we gladly let our ideological agendas blind us to the evidence.

On our bad days we all cuddle up to the status quo, and even if we aren’t consciously doing it it’s there in our behaviour and attitude. This is simply the human condition and it’s why it’s hard to run any organisation full of humans rather than machine learning robots. If we’re not constantly battling to get other people to stay open to information we’re battling ourselves.

When you’re running a business like a typical dentist, in the directional mode of “do this, then that”, what happens? I can guarantee that a rich and diverse number of unintended consequences happen, because humans can be counted on to provide unexpected disorder.

Take this example: a staff member has performed really well, her average daily yield has risen by 15% month on month, so you naturally want to recognise this and praise her. You present her with a bottle of wine in the Friday afternoon morning huddle but immediately sense the envy and scorn of her colleagues, who feel their hard work has gone unappreciated. You can’t win.

We have to face and mitigate unexpected consequences every day. I bought my little boy a clock for his bedroom that changes colour when it’s time to get up so he’d know not to get out of bed really early in the morning. Now he tells me that sometimes he’d stay in bed longer but when he sees it turn from blue to yellow he immediately gets up, so I think I’ve scored an own goal but, of course, he loves the clock.

A lot of practice owners run their businesses simplistically along the lines of input-output and discount the human element and the potential for unintended consequences. People aren’t robots, if they were then empathy wouldn’t pay off. But it always does. You can definitely improve your business by thinking and reflecting more on the way you and your decisions come across.

This can feel counter intuitive and ethereal, especially when you have ‘real world’ things to be doing, and it’s particularly hard when you’re anxious and stressed, pumped full of adrenaline. In that familiar fight or flight mode when you’re stressed out your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain implicated in social cognition and empathy, is starved of blood and can’t function.

So wait till you’re calm to make important decisions or, better still, seek counsel. There will always be unintended consequences but we can anticipate more effects of our actions when we’re reflecting. If you can’t seem to relax and think put your big decision off till you’ve had chance to give yourself a break. You have no idea how important that break might be…

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Ross Martin
By Ross Martin Management Consultant
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