All too frequently in business, individuals, managers, and leaders appear to be surprised by events. The response to this might be to:
- Investigate what happened
- Question whether or not the right people are in the right jobs
- Modify the process
- Shoot the messenger
While investigating the root causes, modifying processes, and questioning assignment appropriateness can yield productive actions, there's a question that is not considered often enough: What did you fail to notice? In other words, what symptoms or associated conditions existed that could have led you to conclude the event might/would occur?
It's critical for us as leaders to think about the impact of simply not paying attention to the details. Understanding the potential unintended consequences of actions and policies can help your team leverage the positive, make productive informed choices, and, many times, avoid negative consequences.
Unfortunately, it's common for leaders to focus on the negative consequences to manage the fallout. Let's look at a few examples.
Scenario 1: A recent HBS Working Knowledge article (http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7554.html) points to a major retailer that overlooks safety features in its quest for the lowest price. Potential unintended consequences:
- Consumer injuries causing physical, emotional, and psychological pain and driving up healthcare costs
- Manufacturing accidents, injuries, and death causing physical, emotional, and psychological pain, family disruptions, and potential failure of associated businesses
Scenario 2: Both public and private companies have owners, investors, and shareholders who establish financial return expectations. When quarterly or annual financial expectations are missed or are expected to fall short, the pressure to "make the numbers" may drive expedient behavior. Potential unintended consequences:
- Leaders take shortcuts, some which don't align with company policies on ethics, creating confusion for employees about company values
- Product is shipped earlier than planned before final testing is complete, driving up warranty costs, driving down employee confidence in quality standards, and eroding customer confidence
- Managers turn a blind eye to defects that can cause serious harm to consumers
Scenario 3: The average person driving down the street makes about 245 observations and decisions for every mile driven. Most accidents happen due to failure to observe changes in the environment and take timely appropriate action. The driver notices the change (cars ahead are slowing down) but fails to convert that to timely action and hits the car in front of him. Potential unintended consequences:
- Short- or long-term injury to self and others
- Fatality that disrupts the lives of families and friends
- Erosion of confidence behind the wheel (can cause future issues due to second guessing)
- Repair costs that may not be affordable
Let's step back to consider these scenarios and the questions that might have informed different outcomes.
- If the retailer in scenario 1 noticed and considered the potential devastating effects for the manufacturing businesses, especially the people, what might have been different? If consumers noticed and considered this same impact, how might that change buying behavior between absolute lowest price and lowest accountable price?
- If the leaders in scenario 2 noticed and understood the long-term impacts of expedient solutions, what might have been different? If the individuals at all levels in the business noticed and considered the negative impacts for the customers, how might different behavior build customer confidence?
- Who gets hurt when you don't consider all the consequences? Who gets helped if you don't? Is that okay?
- What process might you use to understand and consider the unintended consequences in your business and your life?
- Do you believe that leaders are ethically bound to do this?
- Do you believe individuals are ethically bound to do this?
- How much time does it take to consider unintended consequences? What would you need to do to make that time available?
- If you noticed a problem and acted on that knowledge, would the "cost" of doing it right the first time be less than the cost of fixing things later?
I contend that failure to notice is synonymous with lack of accountability. If you believe, as I do, that we are all accountable for the unintended and the intended consequences of our actions, ask yourself:
- What does accountability look like to you?
- Is it worth the time to consider what you have failed to notice?
- If the devil is in the details, what details do you need to start noticing?