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Three Ways to Avoid Unintended Consequences

When I walked onto the practice field my college senior year at a weight of 280lbs I thought my offensive line coach would be pleased. Instead he watched me struggle through our annual conditioning test and eyeballed me as he walked over. “Catanella... you need to lose some weight.”

I had played my junior season at a lower weight following off-season shoulder surgery and had one goal leading into my senior year - get huge. With my eyes glued to the scale and the one-rep maximum I could achieve in the weight room I had forgotten the impact it would have on other aspects of my game.

What I had gained, literally on my body, my coach could see slowing me down. I knew he was right. I had overlooked the unintended consequences of my off-season approach.

The “Cobra Effect”

In 19th century Delhi, British colonials had a problem - too many cobras on the street. Unable to walk around town without fear of a deadly snake attack, they did what they thought was prudent ─ for every dead cobra brought in they would pay a reward. Conceptually it made sense. And soon the dead cobras came in one by one.

But later they noticed the problem didn’t dissipate. Shrewd residents had started to breed cobras as a business. British colonials reacted by shutting down the program which in turn led to the breeders simply releasing their cobras onto the streets. The problem grew threefold in the end. [1]

What are you missing?

In both cases listed above there is a simple yet flawed formula. The person of action sees a final goal and solely focuses on the ends without consideration of the consequential means.

Instead of just looking at points “A” and “B” we need to do the following things better to be successful:

1) Start with the “Why” not the “What”:

For my college football self, if I began with why I wanted to put on weight ─ to be stronger and more effective at blocking large opposing defenders ─ rather than the what ─ weigh a ton more ─ I might have gone at the solution differently. In our daily lives as leaders this is also applicable. For example, you want your team to buy in to your vision for a new sales initiative; one way to present it is to order them to follow the new system; another more tactful way might be to ask for their perspective on how to better grow their sales and tie those ideas to your initiative for greater buy-in and ownership.

2) Project how others might respond to your initiative:

I once worked with an internal salesperson that was paid to make daily calls. His manager rewarded him based on his minutes on the phone. He quickly figured out how to call a number that would keep the minutes rolling without having to talk to anyone on the line. The goal of minutes didn’t take into account the purpose of those minutes ─ to actually be making a sale or appointment for a sale ─ and hence the junior salesman saw a way to take advantage of the system. Instead, be clear with your team about not only what you want to achieve but also why and how.

3) Question the strength of your idea:

When Richard Nixon was elected and took control of the White House his end goal was to be remembered as one of the greatest Presidents of all time. One way he thought he could solidify this image was to record his internal conversations and eventually edit them before releasing to the public. Nixon, however, was eventually pressed to release the full tapes due to investigations of the Watergate scandal. Even if he had been a righteous leader (which he was not) to secretly tape his staff due to his mistrust was not a great place to start. When a new idea sounds great at first, it is important to give it some time to breath and for you and others you trust to question it before taking action.

The next time you see a clear goal before you think twice before you decide how best to achieve it. Do your actions help or harm other aspects of your environment? Does it align with your overall purpose? Will others understand the reason for it or attempt to game the system? When you compile these facts you’ll have a better sense of any unintended consequences and hopefully avoid slowing yourself down in the future.

[1] “The Laws of Human Nature” pg. 163, Robert Greene


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