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Do you know the story about the live cat drop into Borneo to save the inhabitants from the plague?
The story goes something like this: "In the early 1950s, there was an outbreak of a serious disease called malaria amongst the Dayak people in Borneo. They called The World Health Organization who recommended spraying large amounts of a chemical called DDT to kill the mosquitoes that carried the malaria. The mosquitoes died and there was less malaria. That was good.
"However, there were side effects. One of the first effects was that the roofs of people's houses began to fall down on their heads. It turned out that the DDT was also killing a parasitic wasp that ate thatch-eating caterpillars. Without the wasps to eat them, there were more and more thatch-eating caterpillars. Worse than that, the insects that died from being poisoned by DDT were eaten by gecko lizards, which were then eaten by cats. The cats started to die, the rats flourished, and the people were threatened by outbreaks of two new serious diseases carried by the rats, sylvatic plague and typhus. To cope with these problems, which it had itself created, the World Health Organization had to parachute live cats into Borneo."
The moral of the story is:
If you don’t understand the inter-relationship of things, solutions often cause more problems
Simple questions often require complex and reflective thinking if good solutions are to be found
It is always better to manage by design than by default
After researching the story, I discovered that the parts are true and parts aren’t:
Borneo did have malaria and on advice from the World Health Organization sprayed with DDT
The wasps that ate the thatch-eating caterpillars died, the caterpillars thrived and some roofs collapsed
The cats did not die from eating geckos, but from rubbing against the walls of the sprayed houses and then licking the insecticide off their fur
In some villages, the loss of cats allowed rats to enter, which raised concerns of rodent-related diseases such as typhus and the plague
To rectify this problem in one remote village, several dozen cats were collected in coastal towns and parachuted by the Royal Air Force in a special container to replace those killed by the insecticides
Unintended consequences, although not as wide-spread as the first story led us to believe, still occurred for the villagers in one remote town.
Large changes and small changes can have unintended consequences. So before you execution your plans you need to reduce the possible unintended consequences.
How do we reduce the possible unintended consequences?
Look at the entire system – Any changes we make in one part of the system will impact other parts of the system. Who or what could be impacted by the changes you are proposing? For example, might spraying DDT to kill mosquitoes also kill other insects?
Look at related systems – There are eight levels of living systems. Look at the systems above yours, imbedded in your system as well as at your same level. How might these other systems be affected if you make a change? What could happen in their team or department as a result?
Discuss possible scenarios – Be creative in thinking about possible scenarios. The majority of them will not occur, but some of them might. Look at each scenario and determine the likelihood and impact. What could happen you originally never thought about?
Get key stakeholders involved – Talk to your clients, suppliers, and team members. Ask them about the possible impacts. They can mitigate some of the “unknowns.”
Take action – Based upon the information you have gathered, take action to reduce or eliminate unintended consequences.
While your situation might not be as extreme as infecting your marketing staff with the plague, it is always better to spend the time up front considering possible consequences of your actions. Whether you are implementing a new strategy, changing your computer systems or hiring a temporary staff member, there will be some unintended consequences.
And always, be prepared for the unexpected surprises. They will occur, but through considering possible unintended consequences there will be fewer of them!
Want to talk about unintended consequences? Valerie.MacLeod@HainesCentre.com
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