Let me ask you a question. Have you ever had a problem that you solved but that came back to haunt you at some time in the following few weeks or months? This blog seeks to explain why this might have happened…..and will continue to happen. So, why is it that when you solve a problem, it sometimes leads to the emergence of a new problem?
As I sit here writing this blog we are in the middle – well hopefully close to the middle – of the Coronavirus pandemic. Interestingly I have given some thoughts to other such examples in history; of which there are many. One of them was the outbreak of Black Death in the 1300s.
Another was the Great Plague of 1665 that killed many thousands of people in London. In the 17th Century, hygiene was very poor and obviously medical knowledge was much less than today. At first, no-one really knew how the disease started and spread so rapidly. Some doctors thought it was ‘bad’ air and that is spread by people breathing it in.
Someone persuaded the Lord Mayor of London that the disease was been carried by cats and dogs in the street. So, the Lord Mayor of London ordered that all cats and dogs should be rounded up and killed. Indications are that 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats were killed. And here’s where the problem got worse and thousands of more people died because it was discovered that the disease was actually caused by rats or, to be precise, the fleas and bacteria that they carried. By killing cats and dogs the rats were able to run about without any natural enemies.
Now, just in case you are wondering what this history lesson is all about, it’s about the ‘law of unintended consequences’; a situation where the action is taken with positive intent (i.e. killing the cats and dogs), but which backfires and makes a problem worse or causes a new problem (i.e. the rats running free).
This principle is sometimes referred to as systems thinking. If you haven’t heard of it yet, look it up because as the world becomes increasingly interdependent, systems thinking will become one of the most important leadership and management skills of the 21st Century. This is because we live in a world of systems. Your body is a system. Your family is a system. The natural environment is a system. Your car is a system and so is your company.
You might like to note that any of these systems will no longer be a system in the same way if you cut it in two. What you will get is a smaller system that will no longer work in the same way. Imagine cutting a car in two and expecting the system to live?
Get the idea?
Cause and effect
The central idea behind systems thinking is that events (problems) are not discrete events that exist all on their own in some kind of bubble, detached from anything else. Rather, they are notable points in a complex chain of events that has cause and effect. It is not just about using logic, but equally about seeing beyond what appear to be isolated incidents to identify patterns and connections between them.
It’s a bit like the butterfly effect. In this case, the butterfly is a metaphor for something unpredictable, variable, or an unknown quantity. The connection of the butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world to cause a hurricane in another is real, even though it may take a very long time flapping its wings in one part of the world to have such an effect in another!!!
And that folks are a critical thing to remember. In a system like I mentioned above, the cause and the effect may be far apart in terms of time and space (sounds a bit like Doctor Who doesn’t it?). Here we are in 2020 and we are not totally sure about the long-term effects of some of the chemicals that we used many decades ago.
‘A fix that fails’
But, in case you are wondering not all examples of systems thinking are on such a global scale. For instance, many local councils in the UK have banned traders from taking trade waste to their recycling centres. Some others have levied a charge on the traders instead.
Now, I’m sure the councils had a positive intent when they made this decision; amongst other things, it was to solve a problem with increased amounts of waste being taken to the recycling sites. However, one of the unintended consequences of these actions is that the incidence of fly-tipping has increased enormously as traders often now take their waste to quiet country lanes and dump it by the side of the road, or in lay-bys during the hours of darkness. This has become known as ‘a fix that fails’; positive intent but negative impact.
Cause and effect are linked
A few years ago we had the MD of a client company ask us for some advice because his company had seen a sizeable decrease in its income. Knowing a bit about systems thinking we did some analysis.
- Why had the company experienced a decrease in income? Because it had experienced an increase in customer complaints.
- Why? Because the time it was taking getting the product to the customer had increased dramatically.
- Why? Because it had more orders than its production capacity could fill.
- Why? Because it had experienced an increase in sales.
- Why? Because the sales team had been incentivised with increased commissions.
- Why? Because the MD wanted to increase income.
This is obviously an example of 5 Whys, but hopefully, it shows how cause and effect are linked but can take time to become apparent.
Think about the consequences of your actions
To go back to the start of this piece, we are in a pandemic that has had, and probably will continue to have a huge impact on economic, health and social systems. The future will inevitably be uncertain. More than ever it is important to make ‘good’ decisions. However, this will be unlikely if you cannot connect effect with historic cause and so learn from your experience.
Your challenge going forward is to start giving thought to the consequences of actions you are considering taking or decisions that you are about to make and think what effects they may have over time.