I can think of no better example to illustrate the Law Of Unintended Consequences than the UK’s recent general election. When Theresa May triggered this election, her intention was to win a landslide majority in order to give herself a clear mandate for the hard Brexit she favoured. And to extend the term of her leadership to 2022, well beyond the deadline for the conclusion of highly complex Brexit negotiations.
In light of the outcome, some have described May’s decision to call an election a gamble. Normally when you take a gamble, you consider the full range of possible outcomes. As far as I can determine, there’s no evidence to suggest May contemplated an outcome other than a landslide majority.
The Unintended Consequences Of Theresa May’s Decision
The ‘unintended consequences’ of May’s decision to call a general election, backed up by her lamentable campaign, include, but are not limited to:
- The likelihood that she will be removed from her role as Prime Minister in the very near future, and the prospect of spending the remainder of her career on the back benches;
- Opening the door to a ‘soft Brexit’ and the UK remaining within the Single Market;
- A much maligned alliance with the DUP which could put the fragile Good Friday Peace Agreement at risk;
- Emboldening her chief opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, who hitherto had looked electorally dead in the water;
- A government of chaos that is too weak to steer the UK through the choppy economic waters ahead.
It would appear that Theresa May does not understand the Law of Unintended Consequences.
If you’ve not come across the Law of Unintended Consequences before, unintended consequences are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen, anticipated and intended by a purposeful action. The term was popularised in the twentieth century by the American sociologist Robert K. Merton.
Three Types Of Unintended Consequences
Unintended consequences can be grouped into three types:
- Unexpected benefit: a positive unexpected benefit, also referred to as luck, serendipity or a windfall.
- Unexpected drawback: An unexpected detriment that occurs in addition to the intended effect of the policy
- Perverse result: A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended, when an intended solution makes a problem worse. This is sometimes referred to as ‘backfire’. This is what happened in the June 2017 general election.
I first came across the Law of Unintended Consequences as a rookie CEO. I can’t remember now what I’d done, but I do clearly recall a member of the Board gently chiding me, and explaining this immutable law to me. This particular member of the Board had been a senior partner at PwC so his opinion carried particular weight with me.
I have never forgotten his advice, and have since made a point of thinking through the likely consequences of my decisions and actions whenever I make an important decision. (Which is not to say I always get it right. I don’t). So if I have to fire somebody for example, I ask the question “will this come back to bit me in the proverbial like the James Comey firing has done Trump?” And if so, “what can I do to mitigate the fallout.”
How To Avoid Becoming A Hostage
So how can you avoid becoming hostage to the Law of Unintended Consequences? In business there are 5 obvious ways.
- Take account of the brutal reality of the situation. Look at the circumstances as they really are, rather than how you want them to be.
- When you’re weighing up the relative merits of a course of action, carry out a SWOT analysis. Assess the internal strengths and weaknesses of your business, and think about the possible opportunities and threats you could be exposing it to.
- If you haven’t done so already, carry out a PESTLE analysis. It won’t take long to complete. A PESTLE (Political, Economic, Sociological, Technological, Legal, Environmental) analysis is an audit of a business’ external environmental influences, and the information garnered is used to guide strategic decision-making.
- Spend some time scenario planning. Scenario planning (also referred to as contingency planning) is when you look at a number of different scenarios, and consider the different ways in which they could unfold. Scenario planning is about asking the questions: “what could be the consequences if X happened” and “what are the different ways my business could respond in that scenario?”
- Know your customer base and communicate with it on a regular basis. In the general election, Theresa May went after voters in the traditional Labour heartlands and neglected her traditional base. Loyal customers and followers don’t like being taken for granted or ignored. They’ll soon vote with their feet if they don’t feel important.
I learned an important lesson about the Law of Unintended Consequences the day I was pulled up about a mistake I could have been avoided, had I shown more foresight.
Frankly there are times I could do better when thinking through the consequences of my decisions. But I do a little every time I flex this particular muscle.
Join The Conversation
Question: Have you ever fallen foul of the Law of Unintended Consequences? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share your experiences and wisdom in the comments box below.
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I’m Denyse Whillier, a Sussex and London based business coach and consultant. I work with responsible business leaders to build profitable and successful brands that do good, make money and help to change the world. I draw on Built To Succeed™, my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO.
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