Akin to Murphy’s Law, the Law of Unintended Consequences is a warning against the belief that you can control the world around you. As well as the direct consequences, any action will also have other consequences which were unintended and which may be counter to the original intent.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
As an example, in my early military career, I was an aeronautical engineer, a maintainer, working with CF-5 and CF-18 aircraft in Cold Lake. In the early years of the CF-18 introduction, the maintenance community became concerned with the stresses imposed on the airframes by high-g loads. Repeated stresses would shorten the life cycle of the airframe and could possibly create a flight safety issue. To prevent these over stresses, the aircraft was modified with a g-limiter which would limit the g-loads in normal operation to about 7.5g. The pilots could override this in emergencies and pull up to the aircraft’s limit which was above 11g.
Prior to the addition of the g-limiter, the maximum g pulled on any flight followed a statistical bell curve that averaged about 5g for all flights. At the high end, there was a small percentage of flights with maximum g loads above 7.5 g. After the g limiter was installed, the average g for all flights went up despite the fact that there were fewer cases of high-g maneuvers. This higher average, the unintended consequence, represented more danger to the aircraft structural life than the small number of high-g maneuvers.
How did this happen? The pilots, informed about the g-limiter, started to use it as a guide. They no longer judged how much acceleration was required, they just pulled until they hit the limiter and felt safe doing so. The statistics of the flight loads became very skewed towards 7.5g and the stress on the fleet went up not down.
What does all this have to do with business? It is just an anecdote to highlight the need to always be measuring the results of your strategic decisions and to look for the effects of the unintended consequences. In the story above, the maintenance community was tracking the aircraft stress loads and was intent on extending the life of the airframes. The analysis of the data showed that the opposite effect was occurring so action was taken – not to remove the limiter, but to better inform the pilots about the original problem so that they could use their judgement as well as the limiter.
In business, many strategic decisions and tactical actions are taken but once taken, leaders and managers need measure the results and ensure the actions are having the intended results.
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