Unintended consequences

I once read a great quote that I can no longer find. The gist was that there is no such thing as an unintended consequence, only a consequence you failed to understand. Economists, with a methodology centred on individual actions in response to incentives, are pretty good at picking the consequences of policies. That’s sometimes hard to persuade people of so it’s important to savour good examples like this when they come around:

Performance assessments are an important aspect of a healthy company. In order to maintain fighting weight, an organisation must honestly assay its employees’ contributions and cull the dead wood. … But Microsoft’s implementation plunged the company into internecine fights, horse trading, and backstabbing.

…every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor…For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings.

Employees quickly realised that it was more important to focus on organisation politics than actual performance.

In their pursuit of effective performance measurement Microsoft clearly forgot the effect that the act of measurement has upon employees.

1 reply
  1. detmackey
    detmackey says:

    Then there are the other ‘unintended’ consequences. Those foreseen, and advised about, but unwanted. Rarely a week goes by at work where I don’t encounter someone calling an impact an unintended consequence, despite being a logical and outcome of a proposed policy. When a consequence is unwanted, it’s a cost!

    Your example will be very helpful in upcoming discussions about the need for ‘high-powered incentives’.

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