Second Order Thinking: Unintended Consequences
By Howie Mann on May 31, 2020 | 3 minute read
Spending time upfront to imagine the unintended consequences of your actions can help improve your odds of success.
Here are four ways you can apply second order thinking:
- There is no such thing as a free lunch. Accepting that few things in life are free can help you pause before jumping into what may seem like a win win outcome.
- And then what? Always ask yourself what could happen next.
- How will others feel? Examine how your actions would influence others. Imagine you assign someone a task they weren’t able to solve, you now consider getting someone else to step in to attempt to solve the problem - how would that make the original person feel? Worse yet if someone else isn’t able to solve it, you’ve wasted time and risk demoralising your teammate.
- Chersterton’s Fence. An analogy popularised by G.K. Chesteron (see below) which states that reformers should understand why an existing way of doing things exists before removing it.
There exists…a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away”. To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” G.K. Chesterton (1929) The Thing - Chap 4. The Drift from Domesticity
This principle was recently made apparent to me during a walk with my wife. I noticed a laughably poor design of an automatic water sprinkler blocked by a waste bin next to multiple other sprinklers servicing one small area.
I laughed and instinctively took a photo of this thinking I would share it as a real world example of poor functional design.
As we were walking away, my wife pointed out to me a sign which indicated that this was a designated smoking area on top of bushland.
If I had paused to ask why someone would apply so many sprinklers on one small area rather than laugh and take a photograph, I may have been better able to address both water wastage and fire safety concerns.