Types of Change

It is typical to think about change in terms of intentions and consequences.  We intend to exercise more or eat better to achieve the consequences of weight loss and improved fitness.  The President intends to move the country towards greater use of renewable energy sources to achieve the consequences of greater energy independence and decreased carbon emissions.  Sometimes, these intentions and consequences play out as intended.  However, it seems that, more often than not, things do not work our so simply.

Intended changes can result in unintended consequences. James Burke’s The Pinball Effect (1996) provides a wonderful panorama of examples.   My reading of this book suggests two overarching principles.  First, the primary benefit of a new technology is hardly ever what the originator envisioned. Second, the primary beneficiary of a new technology is seldom the original investor.  The unintended consequences of an invention are, surprisingly often, an innovation that was never anticipated.

A glue is invented that does not dry and create a permanent bond – someone uses it to attach notes to choir books and the result is Post Its.  A substance is invented that results in an unintended and unbreakable bond between laboratory tools and lab benches – some one recognizes this “problem” as an opportunity and the result is Super Glue.

What value did people imagine for telephony?  One possibility was that people would like to listen to live opera in their homes.  Good idea – maybe – but what about people just wanting to talk to each other.  Never happen!  Same results for email, sans the opera.  Early adopters transform inventions into innovations that change the marketplace.  Unintended consequences are pervasive.

Not all unintended consequences are positive. Policies can lead to unexpected behaviors with negative consequences.  President Eisenhower invests in expressways to enable more rapid military mobilization.  People then move out of the cities to buy much more affordable homes.   They also buy cars, often two or more, and need more and more fuel.  We become dependent on foreign sources of fuel.  These sources use their profits, in part, to fund schools that educate people to become terrorists.  This was not what President Eisenhower intended!

We subsidize corn production is the U.S. by providing price supports for corn farmers.  Consequently, corn is really cheap.  Creative folks figure out how to use corn for everything.  Most of the “food” offerings at McDonald’s are primarily corn.  These offerings, by McDonald’s and other companies, provide the best deal in terms of calories per dollar.  Consequently, poor people buy this food.  They become obese, get diabetes, and impose an enormous burden on the U.S. healthcare system,

Some people characterize such unexpected consequences as “higher order effects,” with the first order effects being those expected.  Regardless of terminology, such consequences are usually unintended.  Often, these effects can be characterized as “emergent” changes with unanticipated consequences.  For instance, local change may propagate, e.g., one person’s may idea take off by others noticing and copying it.  On the down side, incremental toxins in the environment may lead to complete disappearance of a species.

Higher order effects and unintended consequences can precipitate the transformation of an enterprise, whether it is a corporation, a political entity, or a natural ecosystem.  We need to pay attention to the changes we pursue, enable, or perhaps hinder in terms of their systemic and perhaps unanticipated impacts.


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