The law of unintended consequences

It still amazes me how many well-intentioned efforts end up having negative unintended consequences. With some pieces of federal legislation now encompassing well over a thousand pages, it seems a corollary to the Law might be “The magnitude of the unintended consequences is directly proportional to the number of pages in the bill.”

In 1975 Steven Kerr wrote a now-classic article titled, “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.” The article is no less applicable today, and examples can be found in innumerable aspects of life and work.

For example, I have always considered it dangerous to base a significant part of anyone’s compensation solely on hitting a number. In far too many cases, people will find a way to hit the number, but in ways that will be damaging in the long run.

A similar situation might be seen in the complex formulas used to determine school funding or to evaluate the performance of schools. While there are seldom simple solutions to complex problems, it seems to me that the greater the difficulty explaining a formula for funding or evaluating schools, the greater the likelihood of unintended negative consequences.

There’s also a danger in over-simplification, though. For example, most people would agree that helping students achieve is important and that teachers and schools should be held accountable for their performance. However, many well-intended efforts to improve student academic achievement levels base individual student performance, overall school performance, and the effectiveness of teachers primarily on standardized test scores. In addition, standardized test scores or letter grades determined by them are often the only measures of evaluation published in mass media. Unfortunately, with stakes so high, we are seeing an increasing number of instances where cheating has occurred or administrators have found ways to “game” the system to improve their ratings. Meanwhile, other important aspects of what many consider a good education are given far less than optimal attention, if not completely ignored.

Maybe this is just an application of the old adage that every time you solve one problem, you create another. Part of the problem, of course, is the sheer complexity of our world. Yet, efforts to construct complex solutions or seemingly simple solutions to complex problems frequently end up being ineffective or even harmful. We simply can’t anticipate every possible situation or combination of circumstances.

All of these examples underscore how important it is that we go to great lengths and take great care to try to get the metrics and incentives right. And always be mindful of the Law of Unintended Consequences.