Ignorance, Effort, and the Law of Unintended Consequences
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 email@example.com
(Make BizNet my start page)
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