Bad Strategy: Unintended Consequences

Autumn View from Dead Horse Point

Green River

ON a hike in The Canyon Lands, some of our mountain friends encountered the legendary river runner Moki Mac.  At the time he was managing operations at Utah’s Dead Horse Point State Park, and was concerned for the safety of the growing number of recreational boaters running the nearby Green River.  Because of the extreme conditions, to ensure survival in case of a mishap, boaters would have to get out of the canyon within one day.  But there was no known one-day route out of the canyon, so he wanted one found.

Sizing up my friends (John, Grant, and Don), he decided that they would be ideal for a two-canoe expedition to find such a route, if there were one.  And I was recruited to be the 4th man.

We showed up at the agreed-upon launch site near the town of Green River on a brisk November day, and were happy to find that the state of Utah and Moki Mac had provisioned our expedition well.  They’d provided two good aluminum canoes, paddles plus spares, a range of gear, and man-sized waterproof jungle warfare delousing bags in which to stow our personal gear and a mountain of grub – and of course appropriate wine and beer to accompany the food.  Stow we did, and wasted no time launching ourselves downstream.

Green River & White Cap Rock

Our job was to hike up and evaluate every side canyon between our launch point and the Green’s confluence with the Colorado River, looking for that one day route out (and more routes if we could find them).  You might well think “What’s the big deal?  Just hike out a side canyon”.

Take a look at the photo.  The big deal is that along the length of the river there’s a layer of hard white cap rock above much softer red sandstone.  More of the red stuff than the white has eroded away, leaving an overhang that prevents climbing out, as you can see.

Boaters wouldn’t come equipped with technical climbing gear, so a criterion for a useful one-day route was that we had to be able to get past the cap rock without ropes, pitons, etc.

The weather was gorgeous.  Snow on the plateaus above, blue skies, sun blazing down into our canyon – just like the picture from Dead Horse Point.  The light reflecting off the cliff walls colored the canyon.  The current was with us, and we had only to paddle a bit to stay in the channel, and occasionally work hard to deal with rapids.  Most of the time it was so quiet that we could literally speak to the other canoe in a whisper at 50 yards.  It was Eden down there.

“Ah, there’s a side canyon coming up.  Let’s lunch there before exploring it.  And if we like the place, let’s set up camp.”  This is what it was like day after day.

But also day after day, none of the side canyons had yielded feasible escape routes.  And we’d finally come to the place where we were to be picked up by Jeeps the next day – a place where a mining road came down fairly near the river, a ways upstream from the confluence.

For all our searching, we didn’t find the kind of route we were looking for and the conclusion of our expedition was simply that there was no such way out for boaters who ran into trouble on the river.  River runners beware.

With nothing more to do, we decided to paddle down to check out the confluence.  Because the current was running strong at this point, I proposed a strategy of overcoming the current on our way back upstream by putting all our paddlers in one canoe.  By leaving the other canoe and all but the most critical gear behind, and putting all our paddling power into the one canoe we were taking to the confluence, it should make for the easiest effort returning to our camp site that night.

Or so it seemed.  After getting down to the confluence, beaching, and making our way through a thicket of tamarisk, we did a little exploring and hung out for awhile, dealing a severe blow to the  remaining supply of beer.  The sun went down and the full moon came up.  It was getting desert-cold and time to head back upstream to where we would over-night.

Well rested, we took our positions in the canoe, shoved out into the current and started paddling hard.  After a number of strokes I noticed in the moonlight that a branch of a riverside bush next to my shoulder was still just where it was when we started:  we hadn’t moved an inch!

Then the reality of the situation dawned on me.  My strategy contained a hidden assumption that gave birth to a very negative unexpected consequence.  The un-recognized, un-thought-of assumption was that adding more paddlers wouldn’t create more drag.  The fact was that it did.  Adding in the 350 or so pounds of two more paddlers pushed the hull much deeper in the water, creating a lot of drag – so much in fact that, together with the current itself, it more than cancelled out the added power we had gained.

We quickly tied up to the bush to decide what to do.  We opted to tie a bow rope to the canoe and line it upstream, just as we would in non-negotiable rapids (i.e. tow it with a rope from the shore, where there was one, otherwise by walking in the river upstream).  It was cold, wet work, but we could do it.  In a few places where the current was slower, a couple of guys paddled the boat while the other two pulled the canoe like Volga Boatmen.  We finally made it back to camp and were picked up the next morning.

There are different kinds of unintended consequences.  The unintended consequence of my strategy was of a fairly common type:  namely it undermined the very objective of the strategy itself, which was to reduce the effort of returning back upstream.  Here are a couple more examples of the same type, both from India.

Catch me if you can …

Monkey Control – A form of entertainment for my wife Barbara and me, as well as other guests at a resort near Bangalore, was to watch the ongoing battle of wits between hotel staff and uninvited monkeys.  Next to a nice outdoor eating area, monkeys hid in trees, waiting for their chance to raid unguarded naan and other foods of choice.

When the staff relaxed their vigilance, the monkeys would strike:  descend, grab what they could and (literally) hightail it out of reach in the trees.

But the management had strategies for preventing the guests from being disturbed by those errant primates in this otherwise tranquil setting.  They sent in a small infantry of staff, armed with very long bamboo sticks, to try to whack the monkeys up there in the trees and send them packing.  The guests found this even more entertaining (and I among them).

But when this didn’t work, the management escalated to their ultimate strategy for preventing us from being disturbed:  detonate explosives to drive the monkeys away.  Well, you’d be right in guessing that the concussions from the explosions disturbed the guests far more than the monkeys had.  And the persistent monkeys were back before long, anyway.

[note:  escalation-based strategies, because they inherently get more extreme, often spawn consequences that aren’t intended]

Unintended Cobras

Cobra Effect – Here’s another case of a self-defeating strategy, thanks to unintended consequences.  The strategy was based on an incentive program and had the objective of reducing the large numbers of cobras in Deli (can you ever have too few?).

Here’s the story, as quoted from the Freakonomics website (see credit at end of this post).

So the cobra effect refers to a scheme in colonial India where the British governor, or whoever, the person in charge in Delhi, wanted to rid Delhi of cobras. Apparently in his opinion there were too many cobras in Delhi. So he had the bounty placed on cobras. And he expected this would solve the problem. But the population in Delhi, at least some of it, responded by farming cobras. And all of a sudden the administration was getting too many cobra skins. And they decided the scheme wasn’t as smart as initially it appeared and they rescinded the scheme. But by then the cobra farmers had this little population of cobras to deal with. And what do you do if there’s no market? You just release them. And so this significantly, by a few orders of magnitude, worsened the cobra menace in Delhi.” – Vikas MEHROTRA

Notice that an unintended consequence often breeds additional ones, because efforts to compensate for the error of the first one tend to be knee-jerk and poorly thought through.

Also, because incentive programs offer an opportunity for gaming the system, it’s not unusual for them to result in unintended consequences that defeat the original objective.

Football Helmets – But some don’t.  Instead they may quite successfully meet the objective of the strategy.  But they don’t meanwhile take into the account other outcomes that are negative:  collateral damage.

Example.  American football used to be played with padded leather helmets.  Head injuries – some catastrophic – were frequent.  The strategy for reducing these injuries was to introduce a strong, hard plastic helmet, once the technology was available and they became practical to manufacture.  Head injuries were greatly reduced.  Congratulations all around.

But wait.  Players quickly learned to use the new helmets as battering rams. And guess what.  Neck and spinal injuries then became more commonplace, replacing the head injuries of the leather helmet days.

Also, the hard helmets end up being used as offensive weapons to attack any vulnerable part of an opponent, including being used for head-to-head collisions resulting in concussion.

This has had game-ending, season-ending and career-ending consequences for many players.

And it’s become the new normal. It’s moderated only by the strict enforcement of rules.  Even so, it’s still systematically employed by some teams, such as in the recent New Orleans Saints(!) pay-for-injury scandal (their defense was that they had done nothing wrong, and besides, everyone else was doing it).

Because of the unintended consequences of a strategy of hard helmets, it’s hard to say that the football world is better off because of them.  After all, rugby has been getting by nicely with no helmets at all.

Bad Strategies, and how to avoid devising them – We can see that a bad strategy is one that inherently either

  • defeats or diminishes chances of achieving its own objective, or
  • results in significant collateral damage

In either case it’s clear that a bad strategy usually results from unanticipated side effects(only “usually” because in some cases collateral damage side effects are conscious; e.g. in warfare – but that’s another topic).

Sticking with the problem of unintended consequences, it’s clear that the strategist just hasn’t thought far enough.  So in addition to the mechanics of how to devise a strategy, we need to introduce a new process:  strategy review.

Once we’ve sketched out a strategy, we need to ask ourselves “Then what?” questions and “What if … ?” questions.  And as we can see from the canoe example, we need to ask “What else happens?” questions.

If the strategy doesn’t pass muster with this kind of review, it needs to be modified or abandoned and replaced.  Eventually we get a strategy we have a right to be confident in.

On the bright side – Of course unintended consequences aren’t always bad.  Sometimes we get lucky.  For instance, in the Found Strategies; Busacco post, we talked about a great wine marketing strategy that was an unintended side effect of an elevator engineering strategy.

The odds favor negative or neutral side effects, so we gratefully seize on any positive ones that come our way.  And we can sometimes even arrange for them to happen, although unpredictably.  For example strategies for creative thinking seem to be based on this.  Just think about brainstorming.  Typically a session initially produces a lot of really bad ideas, but also a few which stimulate further thinking that, in turn, may result in totally unexpected but very good ideas.  In this case we’ve bent unintended consequences to our advantage.

And here’s the big one.  We owe our very existence as a species to positive side effects.  All species have survival strategies.  All have to some extent variations in their genetic pool that are mutation side effects.  Those variations allow at least some members in the population to survive significant environmental changes and propagate.  So here we are, thanks to side effects, sitting around and talking about strategy.


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Photo credit, View from Dead Horse Point, The Wallpaper Studio, an outstanding site of nature photos

Photo credit, Green River & White Cap Rock, ASOLO, photo by Jack Schmidt

Photo credit, Catch me if you can …, photo by Monique Rossen, Amsterdam

Photo credit, Unintended Cobras, Snake Craft Collection 

Article credit, Cobra Effect quote, Vikas Mehrotra, Freakonomics  [Note – this is a very good site by economist Steven D. Levitt  and writer Stephen J. Dubner.  It contains many examples of how human cognitive processes affect Economics]

Further reading:  Why Things Bite Back, Edward Tenner, a good book focused on technology-related unintended consequences

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6 Responses to Bad Strategy: Unintended Consequences

  1. Romey says:

    For a method of consciously developing powerful strategies that address Root Causes (aka Core Problems), Eli Goldratt (regrettably recently deceased) developed a method of diagramming cause and effect pairs that linked up into what we call Current Reality Trees, Conflict Resolution Diagram(s), Future Reality Trees (including probable unintended negative effects), Pre-Requisite Trees (including additional actions to overcome or prevent the negative effects), and Transition Trees (time-scaled implementation plans). I will send you a one page summary graphic.

  2. Sonja says:

    The escalating monkey story reminded me of what it’s like to try to stop an intrepid bandit. For all our upping the ante in preventing raccoons from getting into the larder, they have time and patience (and nimble fingers) on their side. They don’t give up easily. They simply work at a problem until it is solved.

    When I first saw the image of cobra skins, I thought they looked like a bouquet, an almost suitable centerpiece for a dining table. I thought the next monkey solution was going to be placing cobra skins here and there on the tables to keep the monkeys off, somewhat like putting stuffed owls in barns to keep down the mice.

    Thanks for telling the story of the Cobra Effect. Can’t get enough of that jewel.

    • There must be an eco-system niche for persistent bandits. No region is without them.

      Cobra skins on tables might have repelled the monkeys, alright, at least for awhile – but might have a similar effect on squeamish guests. They do make quite a nice bouquet, as you suggest.

  3. Jackson says:

    I’m curious about adding a step to TEST strategies as part of the additional strategy review process. Had you taken a few minutes to paddle upstream as four in the canoe before launching, you might have discovered the problem. Asking more questions may have revealed the shortcoming of the strategy but a practical test would have quickly revealed it as well. Not all situations lend themselves to testing, of course, especially at scale or in the same conditions as they would “in the wild”, but maybe testing could help avoid unintended consequences. …or maybe not.

    • Very good point. I should have said “validate” instead of the too-narrrow “review the strategy”. Testing has a really important role, whenever feasible. I think the canoe strategy seemed so obvious at the time, that testing it never entered my mind. Like its obvious that one should walk across the lake on the ice instead of going to all the trouble to walk around it (!)

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