an introduction to unintended consequences


Unintended Consequences are unplanned, reactionary forces resulting from intentional decisions or actions. Some consequences can be negative, others can be positive, and some can have aspects of both simultaneously. Unintended Consequences are everywhere: from the economic, political, legal, societal and cultural sectors to individual, micro, macro, and market levels. Let's look at some easy examples:

Password Length,
Complexity, & Security

Complex password or security requirements can have the unintended consequence of users storing passwords in an insecure fashion, such as placing sticky notes on computer monitors or writing passwords in notebooks.

Executive Pay &
Corporate Performance

Aligning executive pay to stock performance has unintended consequences, as executives choose to operate in their short-term, personal best interests instead of focusing on the long-term performance of the corporation.

Banning Literature,
Media, & Products

The unintended consequence of banning books, media, or products is that when the ban is put in place, it attracts public attention, which in turn drives interest and results in increased sales of the literature, media or banned products.

To control negative consequences and enhance solutions, we can use a process called Consequence Mapping. When we take ideas and systematically map possible consequences, unique relationships come to light. Understanding these relationships, and the factors that contribute to them, enables us to decrease the effects of unintended consequences.


a systematic approach to mapping consequences


Consequences can occur within — and cross over into — the following areas: Desirable, Undesirable, Anticipated, and Unanticipated; there can also be multiple consequences residing in different areas at the same time.

For purposes of simplicity, we'll refer to the following diagram to explore examples across the Desirable, Undesirable, Anticipated, and Unanticipated channels. We'll then map consequences using the following quadrant outcomes: Expected Benefits, Unexpected Benefits, Expected Drawbacks, and Unexpected Backfires.

Examples of consequence mapping:

The story of atms, bank tellers, and BRANCH locations

Expected Drawback
(Anticipated, Undesirable):

Beginning in the 1980's, ATMs were implemented in large numbers across the US. Many believed the change would make bank-teller positions obsolete, resulting in lost jobs.

Expected Benefits
(Anticipated, Desirable):

As ATM usage, and popularity increased, banks benefited from lower operating costs, directly related to decreases in the number of bank tellers employed at individual locations.

Unexpected Benefits
(Unanticipated, Desirable):

As branches became less expensive to operate, banks opened more branches, creating an increase in the number of branches and in the number of teller positions.

Perverse Results (or The barbra streisand effect)

Expected Benefit
(Anticipated, Desirable)

American singer Barbra Streisand sued to block a photographer and a web-hosting company from releasing pictures of her Malibu home to the public, hoping to maintain her privacy.

Unexpected Backfire (Unanticipated, Undesirable)
The opposite happened — Streisand’s lawsuit drew both attention and media coverage, creating an unexpected backfire or perverse result (an unintended and undesirable reaction).


Autonomous vehicles & the organ donation shortage

Expected Benefit
(Anticipated, Desirable):

 Ninety-four percent of vehicular accidents stem from some form of driver error. As autonomous vehicles are adopted, we can expect to see improved driver safety, resulting in a decrease in accidents, injuries, and vehicular deaths.

Unexpected Backfire
(Unanticipated, Undesirable):

Currently, one in five organ donations come from victims of vehicular accidents. As human error is removed from driving and deaths decrease, we can expect to see a sharp decrease in the number of organ donations.

Unexpected Benefit
(Unanticipated, Desirable):

Possible implementation of a controversial 'Presumed Consent' law (a policy changing organ donation from an opt-in to an opt-out process) could help address the predicted organ donation shortage.

how consequence Mapping helps mitigate unintended consequences:

With consequence mapping, we increase the visibility of consequences, allowing us to create a stronger solution.

This process results in additional testing and assessment, identifies potential shortcomings, and highlights hidden, adaptive issues which enables us to mitigate negative consequences before they arise.

With consequence mapping in place, we move from Expected Benefit to Identified Drawback to Mitigated Backfire:


Expected Benefit
(Desirable, Anticipated):

A financial banking client asked us to optimize up-selling opportunities across the audience’s journey to increase revenue, decrease costs in client services, and decrease friction from the audience’s perception. Our strategic changes included an audience self-guided, self-service mechanism, leading to decreases in the costs of serving the audience.

Identified Drawback
(Undesirable, Unanticipated)

By running our solutions through consequence mapping, we identified a negative consequence of our approach: Our solution could lead to a loss in quality and loss of the human connection our audience previously received from speaking with customer service representatives. These losses could lead to audience defection.

Mitigated Backfire
(Optimized Solution):

By mapping consequences, we addressed audience frustration before it happened: We placed call-to-action and educational content at areas that research identified as friction points. We conducted further research to validate these changes and were able to mitigate negative experiences for the audience.


As a recap to how solution and consequence mapping delivers enhanced
results while mitigating negative consequences:


  • Perform Your Research, Strategy, & Planning: Approach the problem by conducting strategic research in multiple areas, including consumer psychology, behavioral economics, and creativity to develop multiple solutions.
  • Push Solutions Through Consequence Mapping: Run the solutions through the consequence mapping process to identify direct and indirect impacts.
  • Mitigating Negative Consequences & Enhance Solutions: Pinpoint potential threats to success and implement mitigation tactics to strengthen your solutions.

planning for action

The best way to frame solutions and mitigate consequences is by having an approach in place, aimed at ensuring continual improvement. While we cannot control every aspect of a business, strategy, or ecosystem, we can address some of the most high-level parts of the equation along the way:

  • Acknowledge that every decision will have a reaction. Ecosystems and elements are complex and interdependent (typically more so than we like to admit) with multiple variables interacting with and influencing each other at all times.
  • Acknowledge that there will always be uncertainty, but that uncertainty can be reduced — at a cost (whether it is strategy, time, effort, resources, etc.).
  • Avoid paralysis and drive to action: Realize that even doing nothing is choosing a line of action, which will have consequences all its own.
  • Understand that we operate in a world which is inherently unpredictable. This can be both bad news (with undesirable outcomes) and good news (with desirable outcomes) at the same time.

those who know their
limitations have none

There are a number of factors that cause unintended consequences in the real world, but we can decrease the likelihood of negative unintended consequences by focusing on the factors that contribute to them. Each contributing factor below is followed by a strategic approach to understanding and conquering them:

  1. Lack of Information & Availability Favoritism: Lack of sufficient information about variables in a system and/or an over-assertion in the value of available information — Decrease the effects of Incomplete Information and Availability Favoritism by planning when, where, how and why you're performing research. Aim twice before pulling the trigger.
  2. Complexity: Ecosystems are incredibly complex and have numerous components, interconnections and interrelations — To reduce the friction of complexity, slow down analysis or planning and proceed with deliberation within your limitations threshold. Use this time to enhance experimentation, expand testing, and elaborate on planning. Thorough and methodical wins the race.
  3. Dynamic Elements: Elements and variables can change their state, weight, or place in a system without warning — Increase the visibility of and control over elements that are expected to remain stable while closely monitoring variables that might change. Attempt to predict fluctuations by utilizing forecasting and modeling. Most importantly, remain agile whenever possible. Agile planning isn't threatened by change, it helps monitor and manage change.
  4. Cognitive or Emotional Bias: The tendency to seek out and validate only information which might support a pre-existing belief, perception, or preference in spite of potential evidence to the contrary — Use planning, research, and strategic insights to decrease cognitive biases and remove emotional biases. Let solutions, answers, and insights show themselves; don't look for specific answers.
  5. Intransparence: Not all variables and elements of a system can be seen, but they can still affect the operation of a system. Additionally, more complex systems will have more variables contributing to intransparence — Study both the direct and indirect implications of your decision-making. Assess which variables, immediate and secondary, may be impacted. Even when you shine a spotlight on something, you still can't see the issues in the shadows. Shine your light broadly to see what might be revealed indirectly.
  6. Mistaken Hypotheses or Misunderstanding: Not fully understanding the problem or making an incorrect hypothesis about immediate solutions — Don't start building a solution until you understand the problem in its entirety. Once you understand the problem, methodically approach it until proper solutions are uncovered and refined. Reaching for immediate, low-hanging fruit may yield unripe, bitter results and still not get to the core of the problem. Exhaust the issue, view the problem under different lenses, use laddering techniques to clarify and consolidate; if you're not getting answers, ask better questions.

"Unintended consequences get to the heart of why you never really understand an adaptive problem until you have solved it. Problems morph and 'solutions' often point to deeper problems. In life, as in nature, we are walking on a trampoline. Every inroad reconfigures the environment we tread on."
- Richard Pascale


Further reading: