My friend Mike Schaffner writes today about his frustrations with a "customer friendly" alarm clock at a DoubleTree hotel. It seems that back in 2005 the hotel chain introduced new clocks with simple to use alarm controls. Unfortunately, it is impossible for the customer to set the time on the clock (engineering must do it, apparently), and the clock in Mike's room had not been reset to Daylight Savings Time. So he ended up using his Blackberry alarm and ignoring the hotel's clock.
In this case, the customer paid the price of an unintended consequence. The hotel offered to find a maintenance person to come up and adjust the clock, but why should Mike have to stay awake waiting for them to show up? Why didn't the hotel adjust all the clocks when Daylight Savings Time began? Better yet, why did they design a clock with no way to adjust the time?
Good questions. The answer: the chain fell afoul of unintended consequences.
Here's the question for you: what unintended consequences are your customers dealing with and what are you going to do about it?
Unintended consequences are, by definition, inevitable. You can't plan for them or avoid them entirely. Although hindsight often makes those consequences appear as a logical outcome of the action taken, it's not as easy to see those connections before the fact. Every action we take will have side effects, and sometimes these side effects will be negative. Unintended consequences are rampant. A Google search on the phrase yielded 1.5 million websites, 2000 news articles and 197,000 blog entries.
Given that, what can you do to minimize the negative impacts of unintended consequences on your customers?
First, do your best to anticipate what might go wrong with your great new idea. Ask people who are not heavily invested in your new idea to help you look for potential unintended consequences. Ask people in other departments of your organization how your great new idea might impact on their area of the business.
Try to think like your customers. How will they behave in the face of this change? What might they think? Better yet, test your change out on a few customers.
Use systems thinking to help you see how one thing might cause changes in other parts of the system. [For help on this concept, see Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (Currency, 2006, 464 pages).]
Thinking through possible negative consequences will help, but it isn't all you need to do. Plan to check early and often with your customers, to see how things are going. And then, when an unintended and harmful consequence crops up, respond quickly and aggressively to fix things with minimal inconvenience to your customers.
Be especially wary of any changes you propose as quick fixes. Changes rushed into in the name of crisis management are most susceptible to unintended consequences. Make the change, if you must, in order to stop the immediate problem. But don't delay a review of possible consequences, and subsequent adjustments to minimize negative effects.
Don't forget that unintended consequences may take some time to develop. In the case of DoubleTree's new clocks, it's been three years since the change. The change in Daylight Savings Time dates this year exposed the problem.
The bottom line: unintended consequences can be expected with any but the simplest of changes. Do your best to anticipate the negative consequences and then stay vigilant for others that crop up. Assume problems will show up and be ready to fix them when they do.
For more on the subject of unintended consequences:
- See the many examples in this article by Scott Granneman
- Greg Mankiw, Harvard professor of economics, writes about ethanol and the sub-prime mortgage crisis as examples of unintended consequences.