There Are No Unintended Consequences

Credit: Mark Bonica

What do you get when you think in systems?

I recently interviewed my friend and mentor Roger Martin for my podcast. One of the things that we talked about–and a subject at the heart of Meltdown–was how thinking in systems can benefit anyone managing a complex problem.

Or, as MIT’s John Sterman puts it, “there are no side-effects-just effects.” Everything we do has consequences. It’s up to us to understand what those consequences are.

Much of Roger’s writing is about how businesses (and, with his latest book, society writ large) think too narrowly about their actions.

We see this in science a lot. Take kudzu. Introduced to stop erosion, it ended up outcompeting other ground cover with its stronger root systems, worsening the problem. Or how the use of antibiotics-practically a modern miracle-creates resistant bacteria.

By thinking in systems—and recognizing that many “side” effects are delayed—we can gain the ability to better understand what may come.

Take a professional services firm that I worked with recently. Wanting to increase revenue, they bolstered their sales team with a set of capable, lateral hires designed to surface more high-value opportunities for the firm.

Their strategy worked… sort of. The additional sales capabilities generated more highly qualified leads. But the firm hadn’t invested in the business development group that structured and priced engagements. As a result, that team was backlogged, overworked, and on the road to burnout.

If you can think in systems, you can avoid these kinds of mistakes. You can figure out how your changes will cascade through your system, so that you anticipate future consequences like bottlenecks.

As a result, you’ll be able to better capitalize on opportunities.

What’s an unexpected effect that you’ve seen unfold in your work?

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Originally published at on December 3, 2020.

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