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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Great Ideas And Good Intentions Gone Awry - Developing an Eye For Unintended Side Effects

On November 29, 2011 The Economist featured an article titled Be Careful What You Signal, announced by the following tweet: “Using sticker warnings to deter would-be thieves may actually serve as enticements for them to go ahead and break in.” The article discusses the use and effectiveness of stickers such as seen on London vans saying “No tools or valuables stored in this van overnight.” The Economist wonders aloud whether such stickers actually deter thieves or whether they simply draw attention to the fact that the driver is a nervous tool owner. According to Jeff Ely, a game theorist at Northwestern University, the one effect you can count on is that the sticker brings to mind "tools" and "removing tools". Although not exactly the same mechanism, it reminds me of the good old advice to ask your child to talk quietly rather than to ‘stop shouting’, not just because it’s more positive but the ‘stop shouting’ draws attention to shouting, the very thing you want your child to stop doing. It also reminds me of the fact that when I ask you not to think of an elephant, a picture of an elephant immediately and involuntarily enters your mind. Interesting processes that I might cover in a future post.

Getting back to the stickers on vans, this writing in The Economist coincided with today’s article by Nilofer Merchant on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network called Eight Dangers of Collaboration. Merchant writes about the fear of conflicting priorities, the uneasiness of not being the one and only all-knowing expert, about information (over) sharing and about other dangers of collaboration – reasons why collaboration doesn’t always produce the results that it’s heralded for.

Both articles discuss unintended and often overlooked side effects. They have been written from a broad perspective, by people able to look beyond the well-known, the obvious, the expected, and the intended which appeals to me greatly and has been the subject of some of my earlier posts on this blog.

Taking a side-step to the field of psychology, here you learn that all behavior serves a purpose – a premise well-known from the psychology of Alfred Adler. Some examples: The purpose might be self-protection (which is regularly accomplished by keeping others at a distance,) masking insecurity and fears (which might lead to bullying, which is not to say that it makes it excusable, of course), or gaining attention and love (which someone might try and accomplish by behaving overly pleasing and conflict-avoiding). The purpose is the guiding factor, the main goal, and the person finds his or her ‘best possible way’ to accomplish that desired goal. You also learn, or should have learned, that present behavior might serve a past purpose, a purpose that no longer holds true (since you’re safe now, or loved deeply), but the behavior continues. Or, as already alluded to, the purpose might still be a valuable one but the chosen tool (in this case the behavior) is not the best one to accomplish your goal. Not now or maybe not ever, and at least not for the environment but likely not for the person exhibiting the behavior either.

In his classic book Out of Our Minds – Learning to be Creative sir Ken Robinson extensively discusses how the present educational system, its output, and its founding premises are mostly based on or caused by developments and thinking from the years of Industrialization and that it is ruining the very thing it is said to accomplish: developing creative, problem-solving, independent, innovative minds who are willing and able to tackle the challenges that lie ahead of us. Robinson argues that people and organizations everywhere are dealing with problems that originate in schools and universities. He argues that many people leave education with no idea of their real creative abilities, and worse, with most of their original abilities having been discouraged and neglected during their education. I highly recommend this book with its passionate call for radically different approaches to leadership, teaching, and professional development. It will likely open your eyes to the possibility of unintended effects of something potentially great (or something that was great in the past) and to the devastating consequences of running on expired assumptions.  

Just as scientists incorporate new findings and newly developed technology (or so we hope) into their thinking, into the formation of adjusted or new assumptions, and into the way they do research, so should everyone, from parent, to employee, to business leader, to educator etc. consider two questions:

1.   Which are my premises that I built my theory, my tool, my institution, my organization etc. on? How can I ensure that I do not pass the expiration date on these premises due to globalization, technological advancements, climate change or any other development?

2.   Is whatever I’m working for so passionately, whether it be higher efficiency through collaboration or anything else, actually producing the desired results without unintended negative side-effects outweighing the possible positive outcomes?

My bottom line: Be mindful that a great tool, concept, method, institution, or assumption might have unintended effects that people have difficulty seeing and acknowledging. Be mindful that your great tool, concept, method, institution, or assumption might not be functional anymore (might not serve its purpose anymore). And be mindful that it might be based on old premises that have outgrown recent developments and future dynamics in the world of economics, business, education, politics or any other field. Be mindful, be open to the unexpected and unwanted, think outside of your own field of expertise, look beyond your assumptions, and solicit input from other fields and from thinkers who are not ‘look-alikes’.

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