I only got to hear the first story on this week’s episode of This American Life on NPR. The topic for this week’s installment was unintended consequences and the story I heard focused on Colton, the Bachelor. Wow. He jumped a fence to flee the producers and end his journey on the show. It made me think about how frequently I hear stories in organizations about actions taken by management that make its workforce want to run and hide.
Here’s two I heard recently:
· In Organization A, a group of frontline employees told me about an open-door policy that was implemented. One of their peers took advantage of a face-to-face meeting only to find herself being disciplined for what she shared. Now, no one goes near that office.
· In Organization B, the company modified its compensation package. This action prompted some of its best performers to leave, and the ones who remained became less engaged and less productive.
The very definition of unintended consequences suggests that “things happen.” That said, it’s been my experience that many of the consequences could have been better managed if there was adequate planning.
I train organizations to “poke holes” in their plans. To ask “what if” questions. Looking at Organization A listed above, if they asked, “What if people think the open-door is an opportunity to share a time when they violated a policy?”, they might have given clearer instructions as to the purpose of the open-door before they implemented the practice.
Or, take Organization B. The next question in the poking holes process builds on the first. Take each possible outcome and ask, “How likely is it that this could happen?” Surely, one or more of the decision-makers must have thought that giving people less in their compensation packages would impact morale. If they had developed a “How likely” list, it would have risen to the top. With the shared understanding that this change could impact engagement and productivity, Organization B could have developed an implementation strategy. One which ensured consistency and transparency and made the case that “We all need to take a hit for the long-term success of the business.”
Things don’t always go as planned. Unintended consequences can be both positive and negative (Colton returned and found his true love). However, an organization can take steps to minimize negative consequences by taking the time to get in front of the issues that could undermine their initiatives. Poking holes helps.