Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Myth and Paralysis of Unintended Consequences

During the last 12 months, much has been said and written about the dangers of taking one action or another to address any number of critical issues impacting the region, state, country and world. There is one troublesome caution: beware of unintended consequences.

Regardless of what solution is proposed, there is always someone who will obstruct some proposed solution with the warning that, “We don’t know what unintended consequences might arise from that.” Of course, that’s just an obstructionist tactic. Everything has unintended consequences!

Throwing out the specter of unintended consequences has the unspoken demand that you craft a perfect solution and that you have complete knowledge of the future. How stupid is that assumption?

Everything has a series of consequences and reactions further on down the road. Nothing is completely isolated. No one can guarantee that something does not have unintended consequences.

However, my response to an unintended consequences argument would likely be, “I sure hope so. Otherwise, it’s such a minimal action that we’re taking here. In fact, I hope we have great unintended consequences.”

For a second, let’s look at three examples of unintended consequences in the real world.

One pharmaceutical company was testing a new drug, sildenafil citrate. However, after a few human trials, it looked like it was not really as effective as they hoped. Stopping the tests, they tried to collect the remaining pills they had given their test patients. Some of them were upset. They wanted to keep taking the drug. It wasn’t helping their heart condition, but they wanted it anyway. You would know the drug by its commercial name, Viagra. The unintended medical consequence: it helped treat erectile dysfunction. The unintended consequence for the company, billions of dollars in unexpected profits.

An industrial products company had its engineers working on a better product than what it already had. Sadly, one of its engineers came up with a new product that was actually worse than what they had been offering. It was a complete failure. The company wanted something that was much stronger than what they had. The new discovery was actually way, way weaker than what they were already selling. So, it was shelved. Most companies would have trashed all that research and forbidden people to ever mention it again. Ten years later, that engineer saw a new way to apply his discovery: the adhesive that makes Post-It Notes easy to put up and take down and put up again. The unintended consequences for millions of office workers: an easy way to mark things without tape or glue. The unintended consequence for the company, millions of dollars in unexpected profits.

The last example is perhaps the biggest unintended consequence in history and one you are quite familiar with, Christopher Columbus. He was on his way to India but landed in the Americas. The unintended consequence for Spain, billions of dollars in new wealth that helped make it a world power. For you and me, the unintended consequence is the New World with all its opportunities and challenges.