Reality in the Land of Unintended Consequences

Many thanks to @govloop for featuring us in the GovLoop Daily Awesome. Our next piece in the immigration #social series will appear on Monday. Meanwhile I thought I would repost something I did on my RecoveringFed blog that I think might interest the GovLoop audience. (I bet you can tell I made the graphics myself!) I’m at South by Southwest until Tuesday. If you’re interested in my updates, please follow me on Twitter on @milouness. @GovLab will also be at #sxswi and they’re worth a follow as well. Cheers.

Reality in the Land of Unintended Consequences

I was struck the other day by reports that President Obama last fall opposed the near unanimous recommendation of his advisors that the US arm Syrian rebels. (The USG has now decided, according to press reports, to provide some rebel groups with direct, non-lethal aid.) Although history may yet judge Obama’s reticence harshly, I couldn’t help but feel good that at least one senior US official–in this case the President–expressed concerns about the efficacy and unintended consequences of the traditional foreign policy “toolkit.” Certainly during my time in government and really just as a private citizen I’ve noticed that the actions of government don’t often seem to achieve their ends neatly, if at all.

As far as the world is concerned, we only have one “N”–there is only one earth and one history. We have no way of really judging the absolute efficacy of the grand schemes and decisions of government. We don’t really know how things would have turned out, for example, if we had never had the War in Vietnam. There is no John Madden-like sports simulation for foreign policy that would let us replay 100 times the US Government’s Asia policy in the 1950s and 1960s to determine statistically which gameplan would have fared better.

I think actually it may be in part due to this “unknowingness” that decisionmakers not just in government but in many industries stress the importance of making confident and fast decisions–why being a “J” on the Myers-Briggs is such a highly valued executive characteristic. The individuals who want to think through the decision a little bit longer–let’s call them the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters–are almost always argued down.

No doubt this chart –inspired by the Cynefin framework–is a bit unfair to strong decision-makers, but it nevertheless captures how I, a charter member of the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters, see the dynamic.

Decisionmaking spectrum

As I hope the chart makes clear, even the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters miscalculate the reality algorithm.

At some point, months, perhaps years later, the decisionmakers begin to experience the miscalculation of their earlier solutions. (I use the verb “experience” here purposefully. It’s hard to change a decision you’re invested in until you FEEL the mistake you’ve made.) The levers they pulled didn’t deliver the causal punch they expected and–usually worse–produced different consequences that appear to be just making things worse. That’s when the decisionmaking dynamic begins to look like this.


It’s at this point that a different, more nuanced, and more flexible set of decisions becomes possible. The bold decisionmakers and Let’s-think-about-it Firsters are closer in their appreciation of the dynamic they are trying to “solve.” (Even at this point, only the most bold would dare suggest that no solution might be immediately forthcoming.)

As is usually the case, I don’t have a “solution” for this predicament. There probably isn’t one. Perhaps the best approach is for everyone to be a bit more humble about their recommended courses of action. And always be ready to revisit decisions you made, even if you were positive they were the right thing to do.

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Tim J. Clark

Enjoyed your post and the info on Cynefin.

I’m a retired army reservist/intel officer. Military has one of the more comprehensive decision models I’ve seen. Challenge is often in execution of the model.

On the Madden-like quality to wargaming, probably not that far away but the results will always be dependent on the quality of the players.

Would be interesting to review the process and information used by the CIA, Pentagon and the State Department in arriving at their “unanimous” decision regarding the arming of Syrian rebels. Of particular interest would be the timeframe involved – near term as opposed to projected effects in the longer term.

On reference to Myers-Briggs, I’ve always found this to be a useful tool. Knowing the MBTI of the decision-makers provides some insight regarding the quality of the decision.

Like your blog. Regarding the extroverts vs introverts, if you haven’t’ seen it yet, might check out the book by Susan Cain, titled: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. She also has a talk at TED.

Carmen A. Medina

Tim, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I suspect you’re right about people not thinking well about the longterm consequences of their actions.