An Inability to Take Action Because of Practical Issues is Not Wholly the Cause of Inaction.

There are as many reasons for contracts failing to close, as there are flavors of Haagen Dazs. Unfortunately, if you don’t close many deals, you’ll be eating some house brand frozen treat. So a double yecch, right?

What brought this to mind was a TED video I viewed last evening. Malcolm Gladwell was discussing, as a point of departure about unintended consequences, the development of the Norden Bombsight, considered by its inventor that, by its precision, would limit unnecessary deaths of innocents in Allied wartime bombardments. That it failed to work as designed was formative to Gladwell’s point that when aiming to solve one problem one often creates another: the unintended consequences. In this case, it was that the instrument designed by its inventor to decrease wanton loss of life was used in the Hiroshima conflagration.

Now hold that thought for a minute.

At the same I was spurred on to re-read Moby Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick’s short volume about what can be gained by looking at this classic as an adult rather than a high school student. One takeaway for me was the enormous preparation required of the Pequod’s Quaker owners to provide everything necessary for human sustenance all the while ensuring the ship was primarily fitted to do the work of a whale-processing factory. Since a Nantucket whaler– over a three year voyage down the Atlantic and around Cape Horn to the Pacific whaling ‘line’ – never put in to port (even fresh water was stored as ballast), no ‘uh oh’ factor would be tolerable. Of course we all know that for all the preparationand well fortified the Pequod, she goes down with all hands but one, when the great whale stoves in the ship. Clearly an unintended consequence of obsessive madness.

I know you’re thinking, is there a point here for me—the learning developer/business person.In fact, there is much to be gained.

By experience I’ve observed the bigger or fresher or more inventive the project, initiative or idea the less it will meet with initial acceptance. Some of this can be put on the known attitude that many organizations are neither innovators nor early adopters – either a blind spot or risk aversion stultifies their movement into new waters. However, I propose it’s often their fear of something unplanned for which they are unprepared that will scotch the venture, taking them down with it. Even if the unintended consequence can’t be named or identified, the sense that doom is a real potential will outweigh what could be enormous benefit. Ergo, if you want to put forward a new idea, by this theory, your chances of success are built on two pilings: one, that risk will be more acceptable if the concept is narrowly focused and limited in scope, and two, that risk is mitigated by building a failsafe into the idea allowing a fall back or stoppage if there is a hint on of storm clouds on the horizon.

Considering unintended consequences, if you want to close the deal or the make an idea acceptable heed the following:

  1. The reputation of the creator/inventor/schemer/seller must be rock solid and preferably with winning projects as a de facto portfolio
  2. There is historical precedent that looks something like what is being proposed. Pointing to past success is—despite what every disclaimer printed or spoken— a reasonable enough foundation upon which new bricks can be laid
  3. Similarly, other risky ventures that have some semblance to this infant proposal or deal having been successful will have more credence than a virginal tender—even if brilliantly conceived and potentially profitable (by one measure)—since it carries unknowns with unintended outcomes.
  4. A capacity to mitigate, cordon off, sequester, or limit a meltdown often provides a wide enough crack of sunshine to permit a new scheme to move towards the light of day.
  5. Finally, sometimes the upside is too powerful or significant to ignore. This is true in highly competitive environments where often a first mover takes home the prize. Technology software, the hardware of war apparatus, even foodstuffs are brought to market with the potential of the blowback of unintended consequences must accept the risk. Sometimes the payoff is Google, sometimes it’s Google+. Pharmaceutical companies must take chances—in fact, their business model demands it even in the face of unintended consequences. You might remember—or should look up the tragedy of the sedative Thalidomide. From 1957 until 1961 when it was withdrawn from the market after being found to be a cause of birth defects it has been called “one of the biggest medical tragedies of modern times. Ever wonder why most television adverts for medicines consist of 20 seconds of conditional benefits, followed by 40 seconds of disclaimers? Still, circumstances demand invention for years of benefit (cash flow, goodwill, or advancement of the human condition) and with it the cellar door to failure.

Assuming all the hard work has been done already and your due diligence is complete then remove the negatives even if unspoken or even unthought…

  1. Make your design somehow quantifiable and measurable. It’s expected.
  2. Use respected key performance indicators from which the formative temperature of the initiative can be viewed against the organizations expectations and, most importantly risk triggers.
  3. As the parent of this change, keep your nose in the air for any whiff of worry that would cause a decision maker to get nervous. Intercede using any appropriate technique. Starbuck tried to deter Ahab refocusing the mission towards harvesting oil and away from the whale. The Norden Bombsight, at the time the single largest military expenditure ever, contained a self-destructive mechanism.
  4. Ensure your internal champion is a real believer, can take a political hit and either brush it off or weather it. If someone isn’t whispering about the containment of unintended consequences along with features and benefits, the deal will crash at the first push back.
  5. Tout every incremental success publicly, either within the organizational community or to the greater public. Then everyone is inoculated against a fatality if, in the end, the lab blows up.
  6. Publish and announce all risk mitigation maneuvers. The idea is to insulate upper management from appearing too enamored of greed to turn a blind eye to the potential for catastrophic failure. At the same time, everyone involved in the go decision understands their role if things go south. With the awareness, you can actually build more enthusiasm knowing the oxygen mask will fall from the overhead compartment and you can breathe normally.

Any idea, any sale, any interpersonal relationship comes with unintended consequences. If you are a mover, a driver, an innovator, get used to naysayers and realize they are making decisions on more than mere cost, effort, organizational concerns and as much from the unknowns contained within the concept of unintended consequences. You say, we expect these benefits so let’s move on it; others immediately wonder ‘what-if.’ There’s nothing wrong with that as long as it gets an airing and you can respond. Bear in mind this old maxim: No plan survives its first encounter with the enemy. While you needn’t see change as necessarily confrontational, remember this other quote: The only one who likes change is a wet baby.

While you plan your next great innovation design or sales methodology, in the next column over start listing potential unintended consequences and next to that column how you’ll survive with them—or in the best situation how you can make them work for you.

A Knowledge Management Whitepaper.


  1. Hey! I could have sworn I’ve been to this site before but after checking through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m definitely happy I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back frequently!

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