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Decision Making

Unintended Consequences of Good Intentions

in Project Management by

lightbulbHave you ever sat back and wandered about unintended consequences of good intentions. There are a lot of real life examples, but two I’ve reflected on lately are:

  • In the late 90’s we saw a push to increase home ownership, and we saw the creation of easy-to-access home loans that led the way to an overly loose banking environment where folks we’re able to bite off debt that they weren’t able to swallow. The banks then started to traded these risky debts, and well, we all know how this ended.
  • Over the last 15 years there’s a heightened awareness of taken care of what we have in the way of natural resources and improving energy conservation. This has resulted in the advent of some great new products and in some areas regulations that require the usage and or sale of such products. So now, the only kind of shower head you can get is a low flow an lightbulbs are generally some type of fluorescent. Putting these in new homes works well, but putting them in my home has resulted in my wife and I having to run the shower for 15 minutes before we can step in to let the water warm up. And, my wife has to turn on lights at least a minute or two before you enter the room so that the bulbs reach full glow. I don’t know if either of these are actually helping us conserve energy or sace our natural resources.

On our software teams we’ll often make decisions that start out well, then we get down the path for a while and find that the decisions we made six months ago are actually resulting in bad behaviors, poor morale, innefficiencies, and unfortunately crappy products. Without calling out specific examples from my past, let me just say that there have been plenty of times when the teams I’ve worked on have made a well intentioned decision that we later looked back on and realized that the decision resulted in some unintended consequences. The good thing about these situations is that we usually learned from these situations.

Some of the things I’ve learned are:

  • Always have an end goal in mind when making a decision. Even a quick decision should have some desired result whether positive or negative (hopefully positive).
  • With that goal in mind, revisit it on a regular basis near the time the decision is made. What I mean by this is that a decision that is made and then revisited six months later has either been rooted in or already rotted and nothing but a bad taste in the mouth.
  • When revisiting, there should be three directions in mind that you can take – stay the course, adjust, and abandon for another brilliant decision.
  • When you realize the unintended consequences, don’t look to lay blame or worse yet become overly reactionary. Instead, remain calm, asses the position of the decision against the goal and make a new decision.
  • Learn from the past decisions, and keep moving forward. Don’t dwell too long on a loss or a win – there’s always another opportunity around the corner. There’s an emotional aspect to winning and losing, make sure that you don’t let these emotions get in the way of deciding the right next steps.

So, what decisions have you made that were based on good intentions that resulted in unintended consequences?

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