Wickedly Predicting the Unintended Consequences of Decisions
For leaders, the devil isn’t in the details. It’s in the unintended consequences of the decisions they make.
The perverse and unpredicted effects of a decision can sometimes magnify a problem and make it much worse. Known as “blowback” in clandestine operations, the unforeseen outcomes of a decision can cause a big mess and turn a straightforward decision into a disaster.
Large and small examples of unforeseen negative outcomes are plentiful:
A leader who promotes a qualified colleague then later learns that another valued team member quits as a result.
An entrepreneur who creates the idea of the AirBnb but doesn’t foresee the negative impacts of short-term rentals on local communities.
An inventor of the “Like” button on social media doesn’t anticipate the effects of receiving or not receiving likes will have on teenager self-esteem.
A leader who introduces a cash reward for team members when they quit smoking but doesn’t predict that some people will begin smoking to qualify for the incentive.
All decisions have unanticipated consequences. With luck, the unforeseen ripples will be small and won’t produce any negative waves. The challenge for all decision-makers is how to predict some, or any, of the possible unintended consequences before they happen or before the decision cements their fate.
The best leaders put every critical decision to a wicked test before fully embracing it. Good decision-makers ask a common set of questions along these lines:
If someone else was to use this decision (or product, invention or choice) in the most socially reprehensible way possible, what would they do?
How could we spin, interpret, or act on this decision in the most self-interested or socially negative manner?
What is the most selfish or evil way to use this decision to an advantage?
If this decision were wildly successful at achieving its intended purpose, what other decisions or choices would be pushed aside or destroyed by it?
The smart money says if evil can happen, it likely will. By thinking temporarily as the devil, decision-makers can expose some of the potentially dangerous consequences before they come home to roost. By identifying the worst “use” of a decision, leaders can construct strategies to offset or mollify negative outcomes.
Unintended consequences can never be completely eliminated. But thinking through the lens of those who would do harm, take advantage, or interpret the choice in the most negative light can sometimes expose the negative outcomes before they occur.
Without the test of wicked reflection, leaders go blindly into a future of unintended consequences. Ask the tough questions and think it through. The answers may surprise you.