Three Cautions On Unintended Consequences

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” Margaret J Wheatley, American writer

A common item, an easel, triggered appreciation for unintended consequences. A couple of CXO roles ago, I was a newly appointed leader planning a meeting with colleagues. I asked for an easel with large poster paper. This resulted in a $10 invoice for the use of the easel, by the department who “owned” the room. The root cause was a financial model that inadvertently encouraged inter-department micro-charging. I discovered we were micro-charging for everything from microphones to projectors to coffee urns – hundreds of thousands of dollars of internal money moving around. There was negative value in the tiny charges; it cost more to create, process and approve the transactions than the items themselves and the administrative tasks were unaligned, if not contrary, to business results and customer delight.

Decisions have consequences. Today, with most sizable organizations having labyrinthine mazes of technology ranging from your parents’ mainframe to the millennial’s mobile app, with the policy and process infrastructure to match.

  • Fear of firing: The best-intended technology changes can result in outages. If I had a nickel for every outage caused by human errors like typos, I’d have a large pile of nickels. Outages are wretched, and trust me, when humans are the root cause, those humans are usually sleepless and sick to their stomachs. Publicly humiliating or worse yet firing them will make everyone else sleepless and nauseous, with the unintended consequence of making people terrified to make changes. Decision point: learn from outages, don’t fire people over them. Exception: People who blatantly and repeatedly don’t follow change control procedures. Those aren’t humans, they are loose cannons.
  • The Venmo affect: The popular expense-sharing app Venmo reportedly has some people unexpectedly charging their friends and family for things like $4 cups of coffee, or the variance in split dinner tabs. The unintended consequence could be fewer friends and no invite to next Thanksgiving. The purpose of the app is to make it easier to split agreed-upon expenses like rent and utilities, not become the 21st century equivalent of Scrooge. Technology is amoral and indifferent; people use it for good or bad. Making your BFF cough up for a $1.75 difference in lunch today could be the first step towards “Skynet” from the Terminator movies in the future. (See also: Westworld, either the original movie or the new series on HBO.)
  • Affordances vs. complications: Technology is intended make life better and easier, but don’t under-estimate the complexity of making things easy. Take room labels. Before e-calendaring and way-finding, changing the name of a room meant facilities putting up a new sign and informing the administrative personnel who own and/or schedule the room. Now re-naming a room can have a complex domino affect ranging from lost people, missed meetings and bad data. The unintended consequences of being cavalier about (or not documenting) the implications of automation can mean frustrating the very people it is meant to empower.

Unintended consequences remind us that technology implementation is not an end goal; don’t implement and walk away. Monitoring and measuring the impacts (planned or unplanned) is important to ensuring that negative consequences are discovered and eradicated.

“True remorse is never just regret over consequence; it is a regret over motive.” Mignon McLaughlin, American journalist

Worth considering:

Speaking of the “rise of the machines,” check out Ray Kurzweil’s TEDTalk. Dr. Kurzweil is an inventor and futurist who speaks and writes about the implications of accelerating technology, like nanobots, on our human future.

The World Economic Forum is being held in Davos, Switzerland this week. Reading and watching the events and presentations is a great way to catch up on the predictions of world leaders and visionaries.

Hubris is the root cause of most technology firm failures, according to Ray Wang. Reasons include failing to create a community of partners and customers; no firm is an island. Hubris leads to all kinds of bad stuff; I’ve written about this before, in my “Hubris is Kryptonite” blog.

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