The law of Unintended Consequences

Suitcases with wheels are killing the planet, or so one theory says. How? Well, wheeled suitcases tend to be bigger than the ones that have to be carried, so people put more in them, so not only are they bigger, they are heavier. Aircraft have to be bigger and heavier to carry the extra load, so they consume more fuel. The same goes for the cars that people use to get to the airport. More fuel equals more pollution, and more pollution equals more global warming. On that basis, the first person to strap a skateboard to a Samsonite has consigned the Earth to a terrible fate. And that, my friends, is the Law of Unintended Consequences in action.

It’s not really important whether you accept that particular theory or not, but what is important is that Unintended Consequences are everywhere. Politicians make policy decisions every day with the intention of solving one problem, but they don’t think enough about the Unintended Consequences, and end up creating a new (sometimes bigger) problem. One suggestion is that specialist tobacconists will have to put frosted glass in their shop windows, so that children can’t see anyone buying tobacco products. Makes sense? – probably. But as one tobacconist pointed out, if the shop is robbed, no-one will see the thieves at work, thereby increasing the likelihood of such crimes increasing.

Unintended Consequences can come into play in business too. If your company decides to host its IT systems off-site, that can make a very significant positive impact on quality of service, cost, and flexibility. Just be sure to think about the wider aspects: if your data network is inadequate or unreliable or insufficiently robust, and you rely on these systems being available at all times, what would happen to your business if you lost the network? Don’t think for a moment that I’m against cloud computing or off-site hosting: far from it. But what I am against is relying on good luck to ensure that your business stays in business. Think about the bigger picture, the unplanned interruptions, and the Unintended Consequences. Get advice. Understand the risks. Put in place the necessary work-arounds. Then make the change, and enjoy the benefits!

Iain Millar, 10 March 2011

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