Unintended consequences come in many forms and have many causes. “Revenge effects” are a special category of unintended consequences, created by the introduction of a technology, policy, or both that produces outcomes in contradiction to the desired result. Revenge effects may exacerbate the original problem or create a new situation that is equally undesirable if not more objectionable.
Discussions of revenge effects often focus on technology – the most tangible cause of a predicament. However, “[t]echnology alone usually doesn’t produce a revenge effect.” It is typically the combination of technology, policy, (laws, regulations, etc.), and behavior that endows a decision with the power to frustrate its own intent.
This installment of “The Third Degree” explores five types of revenge effects, differentiates between revenge and other effects, and discusses minimizing unanticipated unfavorable outcomes.
Revenge effects could easily be confused with side effects, but there is an important difference. Side effects are incidental to the main effect, unrelated to objectives of the decision or action, and may be temporary. Revenge effects, on the other hand, are directly related and in opposition to objectives. Additional action must be taken to counter revenge effects, lest the main objective be negated.
Trade-offs are similar to side effects, in that an undesirable outcome must be accepted in order to attain the main effect. Usually indefinite, trade-offs can be accepted as reasonable cost of achieving the main objective or additional action can be taken to mitigate the undesired effects.
A reverse revenge effect is an unexpected advantage of a technology or policy implementation in Tenner’s terminology. In the generic terms of unintended consequences, this is a serendipitous outcome.
Revenge effects are activated by various mechanisms depending on the technology involved, who or what is effected, and how. Five types of revenge effects are described below; examples are provided to clarify the differences.
When the solution to a problem causes the very same problem, or multiplies it, the “new” problem is a regenerating effect. The “solution” regenerates the problem.
Example: Settlers occupying lands with harsh winter climates built log cabins for greater protection from the elements than an animal hide can provide. When a fire used to heat the cabin gets out of control, damaging the structure, the frontiersman is exposed to wind and rain in addition to frigid temperatures. If the fire is successfully contained in a stone fireplace, smoke and ash are still present in the air and burns may result from tending the fireplace. In either case, the fire causes regenerating effects that impact the health and safety of the cabin’s inhabitants.
Increasing the capacity of a system invites increased utilization. The result is stagnant performance brought to you by recongesting effects.
Example: As use of mobile phones increased, performance dropped. Service providers countered this by building additional towers and expanding coverage. The increased performance attracted new cellular customers; the performance drop repeated… several times. Data transmission followed a similar pattern with the transition to smartphones. Recongesting effects continue to occur until the system’s capacity exceeds the demands placed on it.
Repeating effects commonly occur when introduction of technology changes behavior. Rather than simply facilitating a task so it is less time-consuming, the availability of a tool or aid leads to more frequent repetition of the task. The time spent on the task, using the tool or aid, may match or exceed that spent before the technology was developed.
Example: Lawn care requires much more time and energy when performed with a walking mower and manual trimmer than with a riding mower and string trimmer. The reduced effort required encourages more frequent grooming, raising residential landscaping standards.
Implementation of technology may raise standards of performance or encourage expansion of its use beyond its original intent. The resulting challenges are recomplicating effects.
Example: Computer numerical control (CNC) substitutes machine control for human operation to reduce errors and improve consistency in manufacturing. Coordinate measuring machines (CMM) provide reliable verification of dimensions. The increased precision and repeatability of these machines inspire more stringent design specifications to perform the same function as was achieved with manual machines and vernier calipers. The difficulty of obtaining “acceptable” results has been maintained or increased by way of recomplicating effects.
Likely the most common, rearranging effects are also the most recognizable. If you have ever played Whac-A-Mole, you are familiar with the concept of rearranging effects – addressing a problem in one place only causes it to “pop up” in another.
Example: The shifting of responsibility for product flaws between two “quality” groups (similar to another game – Volleyball), discussed in “Beware the Metrics System,” exemplifies rearranging effects. Each group’s metrics performance depends on the other’s in a zero-sum game.
Similarly, flood control measures do not prevent flooding; they simply relocate it to other (unprotected) areas. Air conditioning does not eliminate heat; it transfers it elsewhere. Trash barges move refuse from large cities to less populated areas; they do nothing to address excessive waste. Rearranging effects are ubiquitous; you have probably noticed many, though you did not have a name for them.
Respect the Law Redux
Several strategies for minimizing undesirable outcomes were presented in “Unintended Consequences – It’s the Law.” As a subset of unintended consequences, each of the strategies described is applicable to revenge effects. One may stand above the rest, however, as the key to preventing revenge effects – higher-order thinking. Revenge effects are multidimensional, involving changes in standards, behaviors and norms, locations, magnitudes, and more. These dimensions are orthogonal to the “layered” nature of unintended consequences, further complicating the task of predicting outcomes.
Discussions of unintended consequences typically presume that these effects are in addition to the intended outcomes. However, this may not be the case. Failure to attain desired outcomes may be due to poor planning, flawed execution, or the “bite” of revenge effects. While the first two may require iteration, the third may require an entirely new action plan, possibly more urgent than before.
In other scenarios, effects are transformed from acute to chronic problems. As development of safety apparatuses and medical interventions increase survivability of many accidents and diseases, the effects of these occurrences become “spread in space and time.” A helmet that “reduces” the consequences of a head injury from death to brain damage leaves the victim in a state of diminished capacity for the remainder of his/her life. Likewise, a cardiac patient may recover from a heart attack, but heart disease will forever plague him/her.
The specter of potential revenge effects is ever-present. Thorough analysis is essential to effective decision-making; contingency planning is required to minimize the impacts of effects that materialize. Development of several alternatives may be necessary to accommodate various combinations of repercussions that could result.
For additional guidance or assistance with Operations challenges, feel free to leave a comment, contact JayWink Solutions, or schedule an appointment.
[Link] Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Edward Tenner. Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
[Link] “When Technology Takes Revenge.” Farnam Street.
[Link] “The revenge effect in medicine.” Balaji Bikshandi. InSight+, February 6, 2017.
[Link] “Revenge effect.” Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, New Words.
[Link] “Revenge effects.” Stumbling & Mumbling. January 24, 2014.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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