Unintended Consequences – The Reason Why Good Intentions Are Not Good Enough

by Dr. Jacob Lee

Most failed policies begin with good intentions.

A wise man once said something like “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” To understand what he meant, we need only look around us at the hellish results of well-intended plans and strategies.

Governments pass laws and policies with the intent to improve the lives of citizens only to make it worse. (China’s One-Child Policy comes to mind). Parents deal with their children in detrimental ways, only to regret later saying “I thought I was doing the right thing. I did it out of good intentions.” I see the same thing with teachers and students. With bosses and employees.

So really, good intentions are not good enough!

The trouble is that while we may have good intentions, systems may behave in ways that we did not intend.

One of the reasons for this is that when we make plans with some stakeholders in mind, we forget others.

So when an instructor delays the start of a class because of latecomers, he is also unintentionally punishing those who came early or punctually. The instructor’s actions simply encourages more latecoming, possibly making the situation worse in future.

To recruit more fresh graduates to solve an urgent manpower shortage problem, some organizations raise the entry level pay – but without increasing the pay of graduates who joined say 1-3 years ago. This may create morale issues and lead to more resignations than new recruits. This further exacerbates the manpower shortage problem.

These vicious cycles are really stories of the forgotten stakeholder within the system. These neglected groups are one key reason why we get the opposite of what we had intended.

Another reason why we get unintended consequences is because we push systems beyond their natural or inherent limits. For example, what happens when you push your body beyond its current capacity? There could be irreversible damage. All systems have capacity limits.

So how do we anticipate and deal with unintended consequences? Is it possible? How do we grow our results and success even when we are starting off with limited capacities and resources?

These are the kinds of questions that we address in the Systems Thinking Workshop. Participants will learn tools and frameworks to help hone their thinking and improve their ability to create better strategies for their lives and work.

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