The Power of Unintended Consequences

Poster outside of Men’s locker room at my gym

by Pete Ferguson

In the world of corporate security, we often look at a new policy, procedure, or physical control (adding a door for example) and try to understand what the unintended consequences might be for making a change.

It is easy to think of all of the benefits of doing something new, different, better, etc. But in doing so, we may only see the upside.

Take this poster some well-intentioned employee placed outside of the Men’s locker room at my gym. No doubt this poster was created because there were reports of items being stolen from the lockers, and this was the easiest, most immediate way to address the issue for management.

“The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry” 
~ Adapted quote from John Steinbeck‘s Mice and Men

Let’s examine several “unintended consequences” this poster may cause:

  • My first day at the gym, I think they are talking to me, I’m a thief?
  • Do they have hidden cameras inside the locker room? Who is watching me!?!
  • Are the majority of gym members thieves? Or is stuff being reported as stolen daily? Do I want to use this locker room?
  • If I am a potential thief, do I really stop to read this and change my mind?

This brings about a very important question when drafting a communication, policy, etc. – ALWAYS consider your audience before you develop your material.

It is also good to sample your audience prior to publishing to be sure they connect with your message. Had I been asked, I would have expressed my opinions above as to why I think this is a really bad approach.

There are now humorous illustrations of unintended consequences in the marketing world. An urban legend tells the tale of the very popular first compact car in the US manufactured by General Motors in the late 1960s – the Chevy Nova – which preportedly did not sell well in Southern America due to the translation of “no va” meaning, “doesn’t go.” Not a great name for a car!

There are also great examples of genius to many products we use today. The “Post-It” sticky notes are the result of an adhesive that was long not appreciated until marketed as it is today.

Viagra was originally developed for high blood pressure relief. It has since relieved Bob Dole and millions of others and is now being researched for use in recovering from “altitude sickness” and aiding hamsters with jet lag (see wikipedia, I can’t make this stuff up!).

As you look at your marketing material, communications, and products, what good, bad, and beautiful unintended consequences can you concoct?

Learn: “Group source” your ideas and products to see if your audience understands your work the same way you do. Keep an open mind, you may find a whole new universe not yet seen by your tunnel vision.

Act: Repurpose any products that have a positive (or negative) unintended consequence.

Share: Don’t be afraid to share developing ideas. It is best to get feedback before you make a critical error. Many minds should help you craft and develop to a higher level – and at the very least you will be marketing new ideas before products are formed.


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