Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

People in a hurry to solve a problem rarely take the time to look around the corner and down the road to consider what other things may be affected by their solutions. Take for example the installation of all those plexiglass shields that were erected in haste during the early stages of the 2020 pandemic. The sheet plexiglass industry exploded exponentially until we were seeing them everywhere customers came in contact with employees.

We all knew that shields made sense and were a good way to protect us from spreading airborne germs. Tara Parker-Pope wrote in the New York Times about how that was the consensus opinion until some pesky researchers took the time to study it carefully. They found that barriers don’t help and worse yet, give people a false sense of safety. And then, the unintended consequence: in many cases, plexiglass shields actually make things worse. 

Scientists say HVAC systems replace all the air in a building every half hour or so

This is a rough number that depends on the size of the building and the efficiency of the system in place. When you install plexiglass shields, they interrupt airflow and ventilation, creating dead zones where airborne particles accumulate instead of disperse. Take school classrooms, for example, where you will find many more see-through barriers than in any grocery store. Barriers between desks make classrooms look like the mazes they are running lab rats through over in the Experimental Psychology Lab, but don’t keep kids safe.

The idea was that plexiglass barriers would prevent the distribution of the coronavirus

It made sense to people to take this approach because it was like the sneeze guards that were developed for salad bars and extended to include cafeterias and any buffet-style service. What was not addressed by sneeze guards was the contamination transmitted by the use of shared service utensils or by people using their own utensils to dip into the buffet.

Sneeze guards were invented in the early fifties in Minnesota

City councils in largely Swedish communities mandated their use in smorgasbord restaurants in response to outbreaks of transmittable illnesses. Minnesota had a large Swedish population and lots of smorgasbord restaurants, buffet style self service from tables full of all kinds of foods. Smörgåsbord became well known in the US at the restaurant in the Swedish Pavilion at the 1939 Word’s Fair in New York.

Americanized versions without the Scandinavian foods were called buffets

One of the first places to see the value of buffets was Las Vegas. The idea was that people would come to the casinos to gorge themselves and stay to gamble. The buffet reached its height in the 1980s, the Decade of Excess. Brian Bartels calls it the perfect American combination of value and excess.

Buffets had been around for a long time, usually the preferred method of food service at large gatherings

When buffets crossed over into commercial restaurant applications, they saved the owners money by requiring fewer people on the payroll than restaurants with table service. Four things drove the buffet industry: so many things to choose from, take as much as you want, go back as many times as you want, and eat until you drop for one fixed price. Buffets attracted budget-minded diners and gluttons like the ones you see eating eight times a day on cruise ships. 

The Law of Unintended Consequences

I call it Whoops – we never thought of that! The Law of Unintended Consequences says that the actions of people, businesses and governments always produce effects that were not anticipated. In many cases, employees would point out that bad things could happen, only to be castigated for being worrywarts. As you well know, the voice of reason always loses to going along with the crowd.

In the early 1900s, sugar plantation owners wanted to drain Florida’s marshes and swamps

With all that rich soil, sunshine and rain, they thought they could turn swamps into farmland. They decided to plant lots of Melaleuca trees that would suck up all the water and release it into the air through their leaves.

In the 1930s, millions of Melaleuca seeds were dropped from airplanes into the Everglades

Melaleucas grow quickly and aggressively because they drink up groundwater so effectively. They were so efficient that the trees invaded all of South Florida. They are sometimes called The Green Menace from Down Under, a reference to their Australian heritage. Melaleucas are great big weeds that grow fruit native Florida birds and animals will not eat, thus reducing natural habitat by displacing the trees that have fed them for centuries.

In 1968 Vermont outlawed roadside billboards

My father called billboards eye pollution. Vermonters prided themselves on their beautiful forests and their intent was to remove these eyesores so people could see the beauty of nature.  Everyone naturally thought eliminating billboards made good sense, unaware that “It makes good sense” is the first sign of unintended consequences to come. 

What businesses did was comply with the letter of the law (no billboards) but not the spirit (public eyesores).

Prohibition had good intentions, too 

But it turned millions of working stiffs who had a beer after work and people who wanted to drink alcohol into law breakers who got their liquor from bootleggers and speakeasies. A network of smugglers and suppliers grew to service the illegal liquor business and organized crime became a worse menace than alcohol.

The Old MacDonald Effect

Unintended consequences in business have five different causes: E-I-E-I-O.

  • Ego: You may be careless, cavalier, or promoting a personal agenda. 
  • Ignorance. When I was a researcher, we used to hear “We never thought of that” a lot when something went wrong, which was often. If you have no research (or worse yet, bad research that gives you a false sense of confidence), you are flying blind into the storm ahead.
  • Error. Bad decision-making is tied to ignorance and hubris, neither of which is in short supply.
  • Instant gratification. Much of what businesses do today is decided by prioritizing immediate results over long-term thinking. Part of it is valuing speed over careful consideration and part is from a fear of being left behind when some short term fad takes off. 
  • Old habits. Plans have a way of not starting with a clean sheet of paper. People pull out old plans and add new bits here and there without questioning where they came from in the first place. Many of the boilerplate sections are only assumptions, some of which no longer apply to the situation at hand.

The best thing for leaders to do when presented with any plan is to ask, “How many possible negative outcomes have we identified and investigated?

If you get a lot of people shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact, you are headed down what may be the wrong road.

There are other effects of good intentions, as Lyle Lovett tells us, including “temporary weight gain due to excess water retention.”

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