Sunday, November 17, 2013

Be Aware of Unintended Consequences to Your Actions

Life comes at you fast
Ever been going through life, just chugging along, when something ‘bigger’ than you imposed itself on you in a major way? It happened to me recently while driving home from an out of town meeting. The weather was clear, the road was good and there wasn’t much traffic. It had been a comfortable ride. That changed in a hurry.
Cruise-control was on and I was in the fast lane obeying the speed limit. Ahead of me was an 18-wheeler. He must’ve been hauling a heavy load because he was motoring along uphill in the slow lane and I was closing the distance between us pretty quick. Now, I consider myself America’s best driver this side of NASCAR. At least that’s what I like to believe. Others will have their own opinions but the point is I feel confident and able on the road.
Even still, when the trucker unexpectedly steered his rig into my lane just as I was passing, it gave me a start. I hit the brake and veered sharply. Fortunately my vehicle held the road. Now I’ve had closer brushes with destiny but that was of little comfort in that moment. I was angry and annoyed the trucker hadn’t bothered to signal, so my initial thought was some kind of payback. That lasted a fraction of a second though as I regained my composure. Contributing to my aborted thoughts of getting even was the fact that the truck could have weighed as much as 80,000 pounds. Forty tons versus a ton-and-a-half? No contest. Funny how a reality check can get a person’s mind right in a hurry.
It can be hard being the little guy
Anyway, after rinsing the last of the four-letter words from my mouth with Powerade I thought about what just happened and why. Turns out the trucker executed his sudden maneuver because another car (blocked from my view) was merging on the freeway in a way that didn’t give him time to slow down; his only choice was to change lanes in a hurry. Had we actually collided I would have been what the military calls collateral damage – an unintended victim of larger circumstances.
As I continued home, what had just happened reminded me of how powerful institutions often pick off the little guy without being aware it’s happening. Or it acts without fully appreciating the gravity of its actions as it relates to others. Ever squash an ant while walking? Most of us aren’t even aware when it happens. Well you can be sure the ant is aware, and painfully so. It’s the same with people.
A corporate manufacturer introduces a new technology that unexpectedly eliminates jobs. A city updates building codes that require apartment owners to invest tens of thousands in renovations. When they raise rent, people just hanging on financially start missing payments and can end up being evicted. The transportation authority changes a transit route that forces parents and their toddlers to walk half-a-mile farther to catch the bus.
Planners, designers, leaders: look before you leap
Similar dynamics occur when it comes to groups of people with power or who are in the majority. For example, a group of able-bodied architects design a public building without taking into account persons with disabilities. Or a nonprofit opens a day camp targeting lower income youth, yet few participate because tony board members failed to consider the lack of public transportation to the remote facility.
Not looking before leaping can be costly in some cases. In others, it might be affect someone’s livelihood, no matter their competence or ability. Decision- and policymakers would do well to check their mirrors before making turns in their work or business, even in the most urgent of circumstances.

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