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Shell Game

Ammo_shells As long as we're talking about law enforcement ironies, another event occurred this past week here in Des Moines.  A local man was threatening suicide, and Polk County Sheriff's deputies were called to assist in the stand-off.  Eventually, the decision was made to end the stand-off by shooting the man with a "Less-Than-Lethal" bean-bag round.  This ammunition is intended to stun and hurt an individual, allowing them to be subdued more easily.  The unfortunate part of this decision was that somebody mixed a live round in with the bean bag rounds, and the shot intended to end the suicide attempt caused the end of his life.  His funeral was Friday.

Again, even the most unfortunate of ironies can teach us a thing or two about how we operate on a day-to-day basis.  You may be trying to help out on a situation, but if you are not paying attention to HOW you are trying to help, you may end up causing even more harm.  I did a quick blog search on the phrase "unintended consequences" and yielded some interesting results:

  • Freakonomics saw problems in the networks of "secret and hidden" fiber optics cables running throughout Washington DC.  Due to our fear of terrorism, they're so secret that our own maintenance guys do damage to them because they don't know they are even there.
  • Nate Hagen had a great essay, asking whether all of our crisis blog posts are doing more harm than good if people take knee-jerk reactions to a problem, which in turn creates more problems.

  • The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette brought up problems with solar power and how it messes with other delicate balances.

  • Iran's recent election didn't go unquestioned as we consider where the power will really lie, and how will the regime fit in with the US stance.

  • James Joyner, in his attempt to show us the impacts of political finance, generated the best quote about unintended consequences:  "It is a truism that well-intentioned attempts by government to curb bad behavior often spawn unforeseen and perhaps worse behavior."  (You can substitute any other system for government and it would still be a truism.)

  • And finally, Mike Larson discusses the unintended market consequences of our government's bailout mentality on the broader economy.

Whether or not you agree with their specific assessments is not the point of this post.  Each of these people, in their own way, has just demonstrated that somebody is putting a live round in a gun where they think they are shooting something less-than-lethal.  Every situation mentioned above is a potential suicide standoff about to end in disaster.

This is why understanding systems thinking is so critical in our society right now.  There are a lot of shell games occurring (as witnessed above), yet few people are taking a step back to look at these individual systems from the 50-thousand foot view.  And this is not a specific diss on the Obama administration; these problems have been growing for decades through executive and legislative branches controlled by both parties.

The bottom line?  Pay attention!  You need to clearly understand your inputs (all of them) and the impact each one will have on the outputs of your specific system.  This is the truism of which Joyner spoke.  It applies in business, in churches, in government, in education, in families, in friendships, in phone calls, in text messages, in personal finance, in fitness, in nutrition... you name it:  it's a system.  If you're a player in the system, then you'd better PAY ATTENTION and figure out how it works.

Otherwise, your good intentions may not be less than lethal.


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Great post Tim.
Have you thought about sending a copy of your upcoming book on systems thinking to members of our government?
Oh wait... as good as your upcoming book will be, I don't know if those in the government will read it given that many did not take the time to read the stimulus bills will have far reaching future consequences on many systems.

Brett Trout

Great post Timothy. Here's a quote I thought you might like:

But goodness alone is never enough. A hard cold wisdom is required, too, for goodness to accomplish good. Goodness without wisdom invariably accomplishes evil. Robert Heinlein.

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