BARRY SHANNON: When the law of unintended consequences comes into play

When millions of sparrows were killed in China, the law of unintended consequences then came into play
When millions of sparrows were killed in China, the law of unintended consequences then came into play

THERE is a concept called ‘The law of unintended consequences.

It happens every day, as a result of millions of decisions being made that haven’t been properly thought through or analysed. Often, they start from a flawed premise, where maybe not enough research has been done. Maybe they have been a result of sacrifices made to the altar of expedience, or maybe just good intentions have outbid diligence.

In the 50s under Mao’s regime there was a drive to kill four specific ‘pests’: Mosquitos, rats, flies and sparrows. Yes, sparrows. The first three are easy to understand; they spread disease, cause injury and are generally unhygienic at best. Sparrows though; huh?

Sparrows were targeted as Mao believed they simply ate too much grain. Why sparrows in particular were chosen, as opposed to any other indigenous birds in China, is not terribly clear however they were added to the list regardless and citizens were encouraged to kill them wherever possible.

And kill them they did. Competitions were held. Prizes for biggest number killed awarded. Citizens hunted them relentlessly; shooting them with arrows, poisoning them, chasing them from their nests, even killing them through exhaustion by banging pots and pans incessantly, thus making sure they couldn’t rest and were continually on the wing.

With millions of sparrows killed the law of unintended consequences then came into play. Sparrows may eat grain; however, they also eat insects. Specifically, the types of insects that destroy grain crops. With so many of their natural predators hunted to almost extinction in China, these insects were able to feast at will, causing much more damage to the grain crops than sparrows ever did (and helping push the country toward the great famine that followed, which killed millions upon millions of the population).

There are also other historical examples of where bounties were placed on animals and the numbers actually increased.

Why? Because people soon realised that they could game the system and have a source of income readily available.

Offered money for dead cobras; simply set up a cobra farm. Breed, kill, collect bounty, repeat. Or if just a rat’s tail was required as evidence, then just chop it off, release the rat and let it breed, meaning more tails to collect bounty on further down the line

Now cascade that into the workplace

Maybe you pull all your superheroes in to work on a new project. You think you are going to get great work done, on time, to a high standard. The unintended consequences of collecting such a group however may be to create an ego war, where everyone thinks their ideas are the best and no-one backs down, so nothing gets done.

Nor do you create any bench strength in the ranks, where staff who could benefit from working with theses ultra talented people, learning and developing their own skills, are left marginalised and demotivated.

In a world full of cyber crime, increasingly complex passwords are asked for. Sounds good. Keeps your system safe. However, the more complex the passwords get, the more likely people start using the same password for all their logins. So, crack it on one site and criminals can access all. Or maybe they use so many different passwords, they need to write them all down to remember them (maybe even putting them on sticky notes in a drawer, or on a desk). Totally counter-productive.

Do you perhaps avoid critiquing the work of staff who are not performing at ‘nice’ times of the year, like Christmas, or maybe when the company is under pressure to deliver and you don’t want to upset anyone? This might work in the very short term to keep morale up; however good employees soon start to harbour grudges if they see that poor workers are not being managed and they then start reducing their own efforts. Not picking up on issues at the time also makes it difficult to return and address these further down the line.

How do you avoid falling foul of this law though is the next natural question. Sometimes it’s not so easy, but there are things you can do to try and prepare better against it.

• Do your research first. And properly.

• Make sure you have a good grasp of what you are doing and why. Avoid doing thins on w him, or because other companies are doing it. Makes sure if fits with your place and what you need.

• If putting together teams for a project; think about their skill sets. Just because you have 10 rock stars in a certain field doesn’t mean their ability will translate to success areas outside their sweet spot. Messi, Neymar and Suarez in the same team. Sure, why not. Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Vini Jr, Kane, Benzema, Salah, Rashford, Lewandowski all in the same team? Maybe not. Who defends?

• Take a pause and think things through. Extrapolate your ideas. Consider the downsides, the potential negatives, ask yourself what could go wrong.

• Get someone in to challenge your thinking. Your enthusiasm may be blinding you from reality. Have someone not as invested as you consider your plan.

It’s a tricky business, just give it a little extra thought.

:: Barry Shannon is head of HR at STATSports