Leadership

Don't get caught by the Law of Unintended Consequences

Too often organizations fail to take into account "the obvious" when making important decisions. That's a big mistake according to leadership coach John M. McKee. It's the Law of Unintended Consequences.

I recently got a call from a guy in the construction business, asking for some advice for his new role.

The city he’s located in is no different from most in the United States currently -– it’s hurting, and business is tough. To survive, his organization has had to continually make adjustments to cut expenses. Sound familiar?

Those “adjustments” included headcount reduction. The most recent, two weeks ago, was the third such staff reduction in as many years. Two of the four SVPs are gone. Our guy will now interact directly with the CEO, who wants him to address how he’s going to manage the additional individuals he’s picked up.

Not surprisingly, those who were left standing have become embittered because the workload didn’t seem to get any smaller even though there were fewer people to get the tasks done.

“Can you give me some advice to help me force my team to work on what I think is important?”

As my caller spoke, it also became clear that his team members were probably concerned about the future and therefore actively looking for work elsewhere.

Fortunately, most managers don’t have as difficult an environment or outlook as this guy. But I think he showed a predisposition toward his direct reports that's pretty common among managers across industries. It’s part of the bigger problems ailing many companies today:

1. Business leaders still need to become much better at getting more done with less.

Most need to adapt more quickly and aggressively if they want to survive. Most doctors realize this -- stemming the bleeding by itself won't usually save the life.

2. Executives need to start acting like an entrepreneur.

Despite all the new literature out there, most executives in Western countries still don’t understand how to do that. They continue to get caught up by the Law of Unintended Consequences, creating perverse effects contrary to what they expected.

And, if they don’t change their ways, fewer good people will stay with them. And their company’s results will continue to decline. That, of course, will create more failing people and companies.

Unless you enjoy working at a place that seems to define success as simply not failing one year at a time, I suggest you keep this “law” in mind.

And while you’re contemplating that one, here’s another that bears review:

3. Power is not the same as force. There’s a real difference between power and force. When times get tough, in an effort to get more productivity with fewer players, most managers simply try to push their teams ever harder. It’s kind of like trying to break your dog of a bad habit by using a whip -– it’ll work for a while but at some stage you may end up getting bitten.

Especially in today's environment, it’s particularly important to ask your team members for advice:

  • Frequently they have innovative ideas; after all they're actually doing the work, and they talk about it all the time.
  • You may find out that the staff levels are prepared to make big changes in their roles (e.g. moving to part-time, job sharing, taking additional time off without pay, benefits cuts, etc.) in order to keep employed.
  • They’ll likely be more satisfied because they were asked for their opinion, so individual productivity won't tank entirely.

The outlook for business in the flattened world of competition is very tough. Highly educated managers from other countries are competing for the same customers and opportunities everywhere.

I’m convinced that the truly great managers will prevail and thrive. But the rest -- those still holding on to obsolete management approaches -- will fail sooner than later.

Here's to your future.

John

Leadership Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

13 comments
WorkflowGuru
WorkflowGuru

As a Business Process Management consultant for more than a few years, I've seen this scenario time and again. I've found that most organizations have two key challenges: 1) inefficient/ineffective/opaque process, and 2) slow/improper/inadequate communication. As your doctor, I prescribe a regimen of process optimization and automation resulting in shorter cycle times, higher productivity, and improved customer (and employee!) satisfaction. For a number of reasons, organizational change will have a much greater chance of success if ALL of the key stakeholders are involved, as John's article states and comments agree. That senior manager of [insert department here] will make your life miserable (and might sabotage any substantive improvement) if his/her voice isn't heard. Keep the "tripod of success" in mind when responding to enterprise engineering challenges: People (or, if you'd prefer, "Culture"), Process, and Technology. Neglecting any of these will bite you. When these three are in balance, everyone wins. Questions? Comments?

Marc Thibault
Marc Thibault

There's a clear and concise engineering principle, that goes back to the pharaohs, that says it without going all Dilbert: "You can't change just one thing."

Datacommguy
Datacommguy

As a vendor support rep in a previous life, I worked at and with hundreds of small and large companies. What far too many had in common summed up in the most important one piece of advice listed: "it???s particularly important to ask your team members for advice" What I saw so often was senior management making critical business decisions based on incomplete - or just plain wrong advice - usually from middle management who felt safer telling their boss what they thought he wanted to hear. It may have been safer in the short term. But by the time they called us in to help resolve some resulting disaster, heads often rolled when we accurately described how things got to that point and what it was going to cost to do it right. Unfortunately, senior management doesn't always have the opportunity to hear an outside opinion, and as the survey and other comments confirm, they don't often ask the rank and file for their opinion. Sooo... perhaps it's not always the "Unintended Consequences" which plague a company. More ofen it's simply consequences which were predicted by the people who knew better. And those are - are should be - easily avoidable.

blarman
blarman

The Law of Unintended Consequences is the fact that sometimes despite the best intentions of those making the decisions, they ignore certain parameters to the decision (whether through ignorance or intention) and the outcome tends to be worse than if nothing had been done in the first place. The Law of Unintended Consequences is best seen anywhere a Manager makes a decision where those closest to the problem are not consulted - especially government. This article isn't about the Law, it's one pundit's views on how businesses today need to act. The problem is that the Law is mentioned only in passing, and never in context to what the Law is or how following this "advice" will help avoid the outcomes associated with the Law. Please go back and re-write the article. It has several of the pieces necessary to make it good, including a personal story, some advice, and a catchy phrase, but it doesn't coherently put the three together to advance any thematic idea. The grammar and sentence structure are good, but can't make up for the content. English Writing grade: C+.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I think is important? One depraved sadist per hostage per remaining employee should do it.... Talk about being part of the problem...

CareerCoach
CareerCoach

The problems most organizations face can be "fixed" if they're smart enough to ask the people who really know.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

As your fewer and fewer remaining people by definition become more and more productive, should they get paid more and more?

Marc Thibault
Marc Thibault

Interesting that you would see people, processes and technology as a triptych to be 'balanced.' I've always thought of them as ordered, as in 'First, people. Then process. Then technology.'

mcarr
mcarr

What happened to the apostrophes? Most were missing, making the article feel sufficiently informal that I didn't bother finishing it.

Marc Thibault
Marc Thibault

"The floggings will continue until morale improves."

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

Indeed the employees and management should share the same goals. If the manager is the only one who thinks something is important, he may be wrong. I have attended meetings where employees would talk about what they thought the problems were and how to fix them. I have also been to meetings where management gives you a bunch of instructions and took no feedback. I recommend building a relationship with your co-workers. They are not robots or your slaves. I guess a big step would be for management to see them as co-workers and not subordinates.

WorkflowGuru
WorkflowGuru

@Marc - I agree with your ranking, when looked at in the context I believe you're using. My analogy is meant to point out a flaw in many improvement efforts: go for the latest and greatest technology while ignoring one or both of the other "legs". The tech gets "improved", changed process is imposed as dictated by the new tech's design and capabilities, and any chance of optimal process remains for another day.

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