How to Protect Yourself from Unintended Consequences

Why the Silver Rule beats the Golden Rule.

The Difficulty

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” said Sierra Club co-founder John Muir, describing the difficulty in changing one aspect of a system without it also creating a cascade of unintended consequences in places we didn’t anticipate.

On Sunday April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and claimed the lives of over 1500 people. Afterwards, one of the primary reasons given for the disaster was an insufficient quantity of lifeboats. Despite totaling 2208 people onboard, the Titanic was only equipped with 1178 lifeboat seats.

It’s worth noting that the Titanic was legally only required to have 962 lifeboat seats, and due to many lifeboats leaving with less than full capacity, 472 lifeboat seats of the 1178 available went unused. Also worth noting that despite the captain’s orders that women and children were to board first, one Daniel Buckley disguised himself as a woman to get aboard and take one of the available seats. Also worth noting that only one man, Charles Joughin, survived the 31 degree water temperature…he reportedly had been drinking heavily.

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Yet lifeboat seat availability was a clear concern so in response to the Titanic disaster a new federal Seaman’s Act required all ships to be equipped with enough lifeboats to account for every passenger.

Shortly thereafter, the SS Eastland, a passenger ship capsized in Chicago Harbor, killing 848 passengers and crewmembers. The main cause? The additional lifeboats, added in response to the Seaman’s Act regulation, made the ship too unstable and top-heavy to support a full passenger load.

The Eastland disaster demonstrated a fact that administrators and regulators tend to forget yet those who actually create and execute work inherently know: universal behavior is great on paper, but disastrous in practice.

Unintended or Unanticipated Consequences

“The law of unintended consequences pushes us ceaselessly through the years, permitting no pause for perspective.” — Richard Schickel

We’ve become too comfortable blaming failures and disasters on unintended consequences.

Few people ever intend to cause a major issue. I’ve never heard someone describe a disaster as an intended consequence of sound engineering and quality decision-making.