Unintended Consequences of Good Intentions

Have you ever sat back and wandered about unintended consequences of good intentions. There are a lot of real life examples, but two I’ve reflected on lately are:

  • In the late 90’s we saw a push to increase home ownership, and we saw the creation of easy-to-access home loans that led the way to an overly loose banking environment where folks we’re able to bite off debt that they weren’t able to swallow. The banks then started to traded these risky debts, and well, we all know how this ended.
  • Over the last 15 years there’s a heightened awareness of taken care of what we have in the way of natural resources and improving energy conservation. This has resulted in the advent of some great new products and in some areas regulations that require the usage and or sale of such products. So now, the only kind of shower head you can get is a low flow an lightbulbs are generally some type of fluorescent. Putting these in new homes works well, but putting them in my home has resulted in my wife and I having to run the shower for 15 minutes before we can step in to let the water warm up. And, my wife has to turn on lights at least a minute or two before you enter the room so that the bulbs reach full glow. I don’t know if either of these are actually helping us conserve energy or sace our natural resources.

On our software teams we’ll often make decisions that start out well, then we get down the path for a while and find that the decisions we made six months ago are actually resulting in bad behaviors, poor morale, innefficiencies, and unfortunately crappy products. Without calling out specific examples from my past, let me just say that there have been plenty of times when the teams I’ve worked on have made a well intentioned decision that we later looked back on and realized that the decision resulted in some unintended consequences. The good thing about these situations is that we usually learned from these situations.

Some of the things I’ve learned are:

  • Always have an end goal in mind when making a decision. Even a quick decision should have some desired result whether positive or negative (hopefully positive).
  • With that goal in mind, revisit it on a regular basis near the time the decision is made. What I mean by this is that a decision that is made and then revisited six months later has either been rooted in or already rotted and nothing but a bad taste in the mouth.
  • When revisiting, there should be three directions in mind that you can take – stay the course, adjust, and abandon for another brilliant decision.
  • When you realize the unintended consequences, don’t look to lay blame or worse yet become overly reactionary. Instead, remain calm, asses the position of the decision against the goal and make a new decision.
  • Learn from the past decisions, and keep moving forward. Don’t dwell too long on a loss or a win – there’s always another opportunity around the corner. There’s an emotional aspect to winning and losing, make sure that you don’t let these emotions get in the way of deciding the right next steps.

So, what decisions have you made that were based on good intentions that resulted in unintended consequences?

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6 Responses to Unintended Consequences of Good Intentions

  1. Mike says:

    Nice topic. Applies to so many things in life. Inspect and adapt!

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  3. Bob Williams says:

    No one gets up in the morning with the goal to make bad decisions. We go to work or we make our work with the intention of solving a problem or creating a solution. But decisions have consequences, known or unknown. One thing I’ve learned is not to fall in love with a decision you make in the workplace such that you are not willing to examine results and change if necessary.

  4. Matt Badgley says:

    Thanks Mike and Bob for the comments. @Bob, I couldn’t agree more — it’s funny how sometimes we don’t revisit decisions. It takes energy and sometimes it’s best served to invest that energy in the here-and-now, but like you said — don’t fall in love with past decisions, because what we do today will likely change it. I run into change problems all the time where people have a lot of sweat equity in getting something right or to work better. They are very resistant to changing these processes or approaches due to time spent, but sometimes — there are better ways or consequences to not changing.

    in any case, thanks again … and with Mike’s comment — continue inspecting and adapting.

  5. Susan Herrmann says:

    I believe the win or lose has to be taken out of the equation entirely. Decisions should not be emotional, and should not define who we are or whether we are “good” or “bad”. And decisions aren’t “good” or “bad”, they are based on the information we have at the time the decision is made. Revisiting the decision most always reveals new information that sways the decision one way or another. This is a good thing, knowledge helps us grow and to turn the decision that is into another one that considers more information.

  6. Satish Thatte says:

    Political, economic, social and organizational systems are full of unintended consequences. People often see the consequences but disagree about their causes (let alone root causes) and disagree on solutions to fix the problems, especially at the root cause level.

    You may want to take a look at books on systems thinking and system dynamics to find many examples of unintended consequences. Consequences of policy decisions often become clear only after substantial time lag due to delays and feedback. Two great books: Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows, and Business Dynamics by John Sterman.

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