Unintended consequences

Like most golf courses, the fairways of Augusta National Golf Club, host of the annual Masters Tournament, were mowed in both directions – one stripe (or section) mowed from the teeing ground toward the green, and the adjoining one mowed from the green back toward the tee. That’s obviously efficient – when the ride-on mower gets to one end, it just turns around and mows back the other way. But, so it’s said, some elite golfers complained that there was an advantage or disadvantage depending on whether your ball landed on grass leaning back towards the tee or leaning forward towards the green. There was less resistance to the ball when it dropped on grass tilted toward the green, so it went further. The distance our drives go, they said, shouldn’t depend on which stripe of grass it lands on. The Augusta Club thought about that, and solved the problem. It cut all the grass only in one direction – leaning back towards the tee. That was not at all what those players wanted. But it’s what they got; their complaint had resulted in an unwelcome, unintended consequence.

I’m not sure that story is entirely true, except that Augusta these days does mow its fairways from green back to teeing ground. Not that it actually matters. Scientific tests have shown that neither direction of mowing makes any difference to how far the ball runs.

The point of the story, though, is that words and actions can very easily have unintended consequences.

When I first experienced severe back pain (in my teens and twenties), I was made to lie on a hard board placed on top of my bed’s mattress. On another occasion I lay on the floor beside my bed. Such practices were the wisdom of the time. Except – at least for me – they weren’t at all wise. The pressure of the hard surface made my back much worse. An unintended consequence.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, many commentators explained that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, did not want a NATO-member country right on his border. The invasion was to prevent Ukraine ever being that nation. But that invasion made both Sweden and Finland afraid they might be a future target of Russian aggression. So both these traditionally neutral, unaligned countries applied for NATO membership. If granted, which is likely, that will seriously displease President Putin. Why? Because Finland has an 830 mile (1340 km) border with Russia. The goal he did not want – a NATO country as his immediate neighbour – he looks certain to have. An unintended consequence.

We all attempt things which don’t work out. We don’t pass an exam, our auction bid fails, our house plants die, our penalty kick misses the goal, our application for promotion is rejected, the car we repaired won’t go. And so on. But unintended consequences aren’t about trying and getting nothing. They’re about trying and getting something we didn’t expect.

That happened to me back in the days of four-ring electric cookers when two rings on our cooker stopped working. To do nothing would have left us with a barely usable cooker. Being a man of action I set out to fix what was broken. I took all the rings off, so I could see how they were wired and fitted. That went well, other than it didn’t help me diagnose the problem. Actually, only my dismantling went well. My reassembly went very badly because, when I finished, instead of two broken cooker rings we now had four broken cooker rings, and I couldn’t repair any of them. But this is a bad/good story because my attempts to fix the cooker had two unintended consequences. First, that cooker died completely. Second, we bought a much better cooker.

We all experience unintended consequences. To help you survive them, I can offer one reality check and two encouragements.

Reality check: Life is neither predictable nor controllable

Normally we expect our plans to work out as intended: that the plane we’re booked on will fly; the meal we’ve prepared for guests will taste good; our car will run smoothly. But none of these are guaranteed. The plane might have a faulty engine and never take off (I’ve experienced that); the meat may be left in the oven so long it’s become a burnt offering (I did that); the car won’t go because it was filled with diesel instead of petrol (someone else did that). The old saying that ‘Man proposes but God disposes’ reminds us not everything works out as we expect.

That’s true even when there’s a very carefully crafted business plan and big budget. Most major supermarkets have installed self-checkout facilities. You scan your own goods, then pay, and then go. It avoids a queue at a cashier checkout. Surely that’s good? But a survey of 1000 customers found 67% had problems at self-check kiosks. By the time they got assistance, sometimes more than once, they’d have been quicker going to a cashier. So, customers weren’t delighted. Surely the stores benefited? Maybe not. It’s not clear that businesses have found self-checkout helpful or profitable. The idea of getting the customer to do work previously done by cashiers must have seemed good to management, but:

  • The self-check machines are expensive to buy and install, and they need regular, costly maintenance
  • They often break down, perhaps causing the kind of queues for customers the system was supposed to avoid
  • Customers don’t enjoy scanning their own items so they buy less
  • Staff still have to be employed to assist customers with difficulties
  • More shoplifting happens through self-checkouts than traditional cashier checkouts, and that’s costly.

Installing self-checkout facilities was not a whim, but a carefully worked out plan and investment to boost profits, and to please customers by speeding them through the scan/pay/go experience. But the plan didn’t deliver only benefits. As the bullet points above show, there have been unwelcome and unintended consequences.[1]

The reality is that a sizeable percentage of all our plans don’t work out the way we intend. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t define goals and might as well give up on organisation. We should aim for the best and do our best to achieve it. But be humble – we may not have thought of everything. And be flexible – things may have to change. And be accepting – life rarely involves a straight line from A to B, never mind from A to Z.

Life is neither predictable nor controllable.

Unintended consequences may be more significant than anything we intended

It’s 2003, and a second year Harvard student is creating a website. He calls it Facemash. Many might think it inappropriate, because the site gives his fellow Harvard students the chance to compare two photos and decide which one is ‘hot’ and which is ‘not’. His initial thought is to use school facebook[2] photos – many of which he thought ugly – and put them alongside images of farm animals. In the end, he copied images from several facebooks, and got users to choose the ‘hotter’ person. In its first four hours online Facemash attracted 450 visitors and 22,000 photo-views. It began to take off on other campuses, but the Harvard administration then stepped in and almost expelled the student.

But in January 2004 that student, Mark Zuckerberg, began writing code for (what he initially called) TheFacebook. All he intended was a website that would link everyone on the Harvard campus. He had no thought beyond that. But much more happened. By December 2005 (what was now called) Facebook had six million users.[3] The estimate for 2022 is almost three billion monthly active users worldwide. All that Zuckerberg intended was to link Harvard students together. But the unintended consequence has been an unprecedented take up and growth. People have strong pro and anti feelings about social media, but undeniably Facebook’s story over less than 20 years is truly remarkable.

The chances that our unintended consequences will be like those encountered by Mark Zuckerberg are very close to zero. But we can learn that unanticipated consequences need not be unwelcome consequences. It’s very possible that the unintended consequences in your life will be greater and more wonderful than anything you anticipated.

And that brings me to the final encouragement.

Unintended consequences can be absolutely, excitingly, life-changingly delightful

Here’s my story of exactly that.

My career beginnings were in journalism, leaving school and starting work with The Scotsman (which, never short on modesty, has for decades described itself as Scotland’s national quality newspaper). My first year with the paper was mostly journalism studies at college, then followed by two years full-time as reporter and sub-editor. It was during that time I made my Christian commitment and only months after that I felt I should prepare for Christian ministry. That would mean going to university. I didn’t have the qualifications for entry, so I began studying at evening classes. But severe back pain halted all work and study for about two months. I recovered but realised I’d never get into university with part-time study. I resigned from The Scotsman and enrolled full-time at a further education college. One year later I had the passes needed to enter the University of Edinburgh.

I began alongside thousands more freshers. One of the other new students at the University should have arrived one year earlier, but her intended course of study was being revamped so they’d cancelled the previous year’s admission. Hence she began the same year I did. We met within a few weeks, and three years later Alison and I got married. That was undoubtedly the greatest wisdom either of us ever had. And, well over four decades later, being together keeps getting better.

But very easily it might never have happened.  What if I had done better at high school and gone on immediately to university? What if I’d made my Christian commitment some other time? What if I hadn’t been sidelined by bad health when I first tried to improve my qualifications? What if Alison’s course hadn’t been pushed back a year? But all these factors, all these circumstances, strangely and wonderfully had the unplanned, unforeseen, unintended consequence that Alison and I met.

In my opinion, there’s a lot to be said for unintended consequences.

[1] Much of the information here is from https://edition.cnn.com/2022/07/09/business/self-checkout-retail/index.html

[2] Albums with photos of every student.

[3] Information from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Facebook