Recently, I came across the story of Sideroxylon grandiflorum (tambalacoque), a tree valued for its timber in Mauritius. In the 1970’s it was thought that this species of tree was becoming extinct. According to University of Wisconsin ornithologist Stanley Temple, there were about 13 trees remaining in Mauritius in the late 1970’s. In his account, these trees were over three hundred years old. He was puzzled by the near extinction of this species of tree. He finally “figured it out” and wrote a paper detailing his hypothesis. He concluded that the near extinction of Sideroxylon grandiflorum was caused by the extinction of the famous bird species – the Dodo. He hypothesized that the tambalacoque fruits have endocarps (shell) and the seeds germinated by passing through the digestive tracts of the Dodo bird. With the extinction of the Dodo bird, the germination of any new seeds stopped, and this was leading to the near extinction of the tambalacoque trees. Temple then tried using wild turkeys in place of the Dodo birds for germination of tambalacoque tree seeds. Even this was not ideal, since the wild turkeys were not as effective as the Dodo birds.
Stanley Temple’s paper was later contested by others, and they were able to show that the seeds could be germinated in the open without the aid of any animals or birds. They argued that the trees were not near extinction and that there were several hundred trees (some younger than three hundred years) in the wild. There was indeed a decline in the tambalacoque tree population and this was caused by large-scale deforestation for sugar cane production, and the introduction of several new species to the island.
Stanley Temple’s paper would have been the perfect case of unintended consequences if it was not challenged by peers. Still, it does give us food for thought. Unintended consequences are events or outcomes from a previous action that was not anticipated at the time of the previous action. These outcomes may sometimes be beneficial and sometimes be detrimental. An example of beneficial result is finding that aspirin, which was originally intended for pain relief, was found to be an excellent anticoagulant. An example of detrimental result is the story of the “A380 Airbus” which was touted as being the “quiet airplane”. Emirate Airline started using A380 Airbus and they received complaints from the travelers and the airline staff alike about it being too quiet. Now everyone could hear “everything” like every crying baby, snoring passenger and flushing toilet.
One of the first people to detail unintended consequences and identify the potential causes was Robert K Merton. He was an American Sociologist and Economist (1910-2003). Merton is credited with creating phrases such as “role model”, and “self-fulfilling prophecy”. He detailed five causes in his 1936 paper “The unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”;
- Lack of adequate knowledge – “sole barrier to correct anticipation.”
- Error in appraisal of the current situation – “assumption that actions which have in the past led to the desired outcome will continue to do so.”
- Imperious immediacy of interest – “paramount concern only with the foreseen immediate consequences which excludes the consideration of further or other consequences of the same act.”
- Basic Values – “no consideration of further consequences because of the felt necessity of certain action enjoined by certain fundamental values.”
- Self-defeating Prophecies pertaining to human conduct – public predictions of future social developments fail because the prediction itself changes the initial course of developments. This flip side of this idea was later developed by Melton as the self-fulfilling prophecy.
I have identified four ways to tackle unintended consequences;
- Think in term of Systems:
Thinking in terms of systems helps you in anticipating the consequences. Thinking in terms of systems makes you look at the parts and how the parts interact with each other. This forces us to look at the interconnectedness of the parts and evaluate potential consequences.
- Welcome and Encourage Diversity in Thinking:
One of the ways to deal with the unintended consequences phenomenon is to welcome diverse and varying perspectives for decision making. In Toyota Production System, Toyota talks about gaining consensus. Toyota UK Blog talks about this;
Nemawashi is the first step in the decision making process. It is sharing of information about the decisions that will be made, in order to involve all employees in the process. During the nemawashi, the company is seeking for the opinion of the employees about the decision.
- Challenge your Mental Models:
Jay Forrester, an American Systems Scientist, argues that most social organizations, from corporations to cities, represent a far higher level of complexity and abstraction than most people can grasp on their own. And yet corporate and government leaders of all sorts persist in making decisions based on their own “mental models”. The mental models become the limitations no matter how intuitive and comforting they are. We need to challenge our current mental models and look for information challenging them.
- Share Information, Knowledge and Wisdom:
Russel Ackoff, talks about the difference between information, knowledge and wisdom. Information is data with context, knowledge is gaining useful meaning from the information, and wisdom is knowing what to do with the knowledge in familiar and new environments. The sharing of information, knowledge and wisdom ensures that you are prepared and have a redundant support system. Keep learning and encourage learning.
I will finish off with possibly my favorite unintended consequences story. This came from Dr. Ariely;
In 1976, the average CEO’s pay was about 36 times the average employees pay. In 1993, the average CEO was paid about 131 times as much. This prompted the Federal Securities Regulators to force companies to reveal how much their top executives were being paid. The intent was that this would slow down or even reduce the increase in the top executives’ pay since this information would be public and the top executives will be pressured by the media and the citizens.
However, this had the opposite effect. When the information on the pay was made public, the CEOs started comparing their pay, and started demanding more pay. In “Predictably Irrational”, Ariely says that the average CEO now makes about 369 times the average employees pay – about three times more than when the information was made public.
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was The Big Picture of Problem Solving.