Ignorance, Effort, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

An incident on a recent trip reminded me of the law of unintended consequences. I was staying at a small, secluded Forest Service campground near Sedona, Arizona. On the third night, a foreign tourist arrived well after dark. Disregarding our hosts’ admonitions to avoid disturbing other campers, he began setting up his camp with great vigor. First came the most powerful lantern I’ve ever seen followed by a ground cloth, tent, and portable kitchen. Each item emerged from his car with great formality, and attendant noise ranging from rattling pots and pans to the pounding of tent stakes. Other campers tolerated the racket in hopes that he’d finish quickly. In twenty minutes, or so, our patience was rewarded by an ear-splitting scream.

Cautiously approaching his campsite, we discovered the cause of his angst. No one was injured, but he has seen a small scorpion on the ground several feet from his tent. In broken English, he began calling for the campground host and demanding assistance from everyone within the considerable range of his voice. Those of us who had dealt with such things before advised him—perhaps a bit selfishly—to leave it alone, turn off his light, zip up his tent, and go to sleep.

He had his own plan. Evidently reasoning that if some light is good—it enabled him to spot the scorpion—he quickly produced a second powerful lantern followed by a third, two powerful flashlights, and a hiking light on a headband. In short order, he was producing enough candle power to illuminate much of the valley and mitigate California’s energy shortage. He then began waiving his arms frantically and running from lantern to lantern to make sure that all were adequately fueled.

None of this, neither the lights nor the screaming, solved the problem. In fact, the harder he worked, the more scorpions appeared. After a long half hour, he gave up, tossing most of his camping gear back into his car and drove off in a flurry of flying gravel.

All of his efforts to rid the area of scorpions came to naught because he didn’t understand the fundamental dynamics of the situation. Light attracts a variety of small insects and scorpions are among the top predators in the insect world. As he produced more light, he attracted more insects and more scorpions followed in search of prey.

Other campers were delighted by his departure. Silence returned and we could resume our slumbers. Over coffee the next morning, we sheepishly admitted another reason. By firing up his lanterns and other lights, our unwitting guest had attracted virtually all of the bugs and scorpions in the campground. The rest of us could sleep in peace, secure in the knowledge that our own sites were free of the nasty creatures.

While this is an extreme, and somewhat humorous, example of the law of unintended consequences—attempting to solve a problem in a way that only makes it worse—this story is also relevant to problems I sometimes encounter in professional situations. When times are hard, many managers resort to the “work harder” syndrome. Rather that searching for alternate approaches, they call on their already taxed employees to do more. Like our hapless tourist, these managers often aggravate a problem by vigorously pursuing strategies that are doomed to failure. Let me illustrate.

Recently, a local business decided to reposition its product line. The firm’s intention was to reach a wealthier, more sophisticated audience that was less affected by the current economic slow down. After decades of success with a product line appealing to the third and fourth quintiles, or fifths, of the socio economic spectrum, the firm launched a series of products designed to appeal to upscale customers in the first and second quintiles.

Reception for the new products was lukewarm, at best. Existing customers could neither afford nor use them. The consumers for the new products neither read the firms promotional literature nor consider the firm to be a viable supplier. Moreover, many would have felt uncomfortable had their neighbors seen them shopping there.

Faced with declining sales and a faltering product line, management responded in an all too predictable manner: it redoubled its efforts to produce goods and services for the “upscale” customers. Within a few months, its offerings nearly doubled and more catalogs were printed and distributed to consumers who seldom read them. Existing customers found less and less of interest to them and increasingly felt out of place among the alien goods. Like the tourist lighting more lanterns and flashlights, the company produced more and more products for consumers who didn’t weren’t particularly interested. Worse yet, existing customers began to feel like second-class citizens and found more amenable places to shop.

While the settings are very different, the firm’s management committed the same error as our unfortunate tourist. Neither understood the underlying dynamics and both responded in ways that only aggravated the situation. Like the tourist who failed to realize that light attracts bugs and scorpions, management failed to realize that product is only part of selling to more sophisticated consumers. Instead of developing more new products, the company should have employed new promotional vehicles and implemented higher standards of service and support.

In the end, only competitors benefited from the company’s product development efforts. With effective promotional vehicles and appropriate service standards in place, they readily copied the most attractive product ideas and rapidly extended their franchises. In this there is another parallel to the story with which we began. Just as other campers slept well in the knowledge that all the scorpions had been drawn away from their campsites, the company’s competitors were able to relax their own product development efforts and commit ever more resources to promotion, further extending their lead on the now struggling company.

As you may already have guessed, both stories illustrate the same moral lesson. Hard work, vigor, and enthusiasm are appropriate responses to many situations. However, before you begin take time to study the situation and make sure you are working on the right things. When you violate the law of unintended consequences, a variety of nasty creepy crawlies are waiting to get you.

Eric Skopec is an author, educator, and consultant. He has taught at the University of Southern California and Syracuse University and is the author of 7 books including The Global Telecommunications Revolution and Everything's Negotiable an executive book club “book of the month” selection. He can be reached at ewskopec@earthlink.net

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