Minimize unintended consequences by thinking in systems

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What is an unintended consequence?

When you obtain effects you didn’t want and you did not expect, following your actions, you are experiencing unintended consequences.

Too much love at the family level

If you squeeze too much your children because you love them you might figuratively and physically suffocate them. Instead of making them closer to you, you become an annoying person and they don’t want to be near you.

Wrong killing incentive at the government level

You are in In India and you want to reduce the danger of having too many Cobra snakes around. You could reward people for killing Cobras with the unintended consequence of making them breed this species to collect the prize. So you are actually making things worst.

Hurting lost children

In World’s poorest countries some of the worst orphanages are pushed toward corrupting families, to sell them their children under the false promise of a better life for them. They will be resold to the best offerer in the international black market. Sad but true. And that’s why children should skip the intermediary step of orphanages.

Why is this interesting?

Negative consequences are unintended when we don’t know the chains of causes and effects leading to them. It’s difficult, very difficult to know and connect all forces in a context and to establish their relationships but it’s the only direction to take to minimize the unintended harmful effects. Sometimes we have to focus on not making mistakes rather than winning so the right move is to not make the bad one.

Systems Thinking is what we need more of

Systems Thinking is an interdisciplinary approach providing one of the most effective and efficient models of reality. By mapping parts and their relationships within a considered system, we have a better understanding of the contexts and we can work to identify to promote the system to a healthier status.

I’ve always been thinking in systems and I didn’t know that. It’s only a few decades ago that I’ve discovered this way to think and to look at the world and I’ve never stopped researching more about it. Systems Thinking is a vast discipline and you will find one definition for every scholar. One life wouldn’t be enough to study all researches, approaches, and frameworks but it is worth it to find our way to be better systems thinkers. As today is one of the best chances to survive as a species.

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2 responses to “Minimize unintended consequences by thinking in systems”

  1. This is really interesting and deeply true.
    That’s probably why you can feel it is always somehow relevant to what’s going on in the world, at any scale, from the relationships within your family to international politics.

    Sometimes, it’s quite easy to imagine the consequences of our actions, and yet we decide to ignore what common sense suggests or history has eminently taught us.
    Sometimes it takes time and extensive researches.

    So, what’s the best way to broaden our views and increase the complexity of our system thinking without stumbling into paralysis by analysis or an exaggerated, numbing relativism?


  2. Be pragmatically curious. Research questions, before trying to get answers. Talk about what concerns you rather than pushing it back. Expand your network of thinking people, the more diverse, the better.
    And map what surrounds you with the same passion and excitement an explorer could have on an adventure looking for the ultimate truth. Knowing that it will never end.

    All sounds romantic and maybe too far. But simple things could lead the way.
    1) Ask questions. More. And listen
    2) Capture interesting knowledge in a permanent and accessible medium
    3) Review your thoughts and connect interesting ideas
    4) Share your findings within your network to increase their value
    5) Plan experiments, at all levels: dining on the floor to see how family reacts, up to, taking the wrong road to go office, what did you notice?
    6) Reflect on your observations and change experiments
    7) Iterate.