What Works in the Short Term Often Backfires: The Cobra Effect
“Knowing how to think empowers you far beyond those who only know what to think.” - Neil deGrasse Tyson
This post was was originally written for a newsletter of mine last year...
This one is about general thinking concepts, so it might be a palette cleanser from the usual tech content.
I'm sending this one from India! 👋 🇮🇳
And it reminded me of this powerful story.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions...
We have all been there.
Starting with some great intentions, we somehow get the opposite effect.
In 1900, when British colonials ruled India and had a major problem with venomous cobra snakes, they tried bounties to solve the issue.
However, local enterprising folks responded by breeding more of these deadly creatures to maximize the benefit of the newly offered bounty.
This, in turn, increased the number of snakes!
When the government canceled the program after realizing what was happening, all of the farmed snakes were released into the wild, undoing any positive effect that they might have already gained.
After noticing this, the term "cobra effect" was coined in the early 1900s by German economist Horst Siebert.
In tech companies, we often get the same phenomenon when we put metrics on developers; lines of code/testing metrics where developers will create more complex code to provide the required results, which in turn creates more fragile code and less productive developers as they fight against the metrics rather than towards the intended goal.
If you're thinking about implementing a solution to a problem, take a step back and consider whether it might have unintended consequences that make the problem worse.
Make it an exercise of thinking about how you would cheat the system you are creating to get creative when considering abuses of the system.
Knowing this, when helping a business change its way of working and in an attempt to stop falling into an unseen pitfall, I test my ideas with a team rather than the company and look at the results carefully.
I ask for feedback and ask the teams how they think this could be abused.
With feedback, tests, and evaluation, I get confidence in either proceeding or canceling my next "great idea".
The cobra effect is a reminder that what works in the short term doesn't always work in the long term---and sometimes, our actions can end up having the opposite of their intended effect.
Think clearer: This knowledge, combined with another of my favorite mental models, second-order thinking, could protect you from making the same mistakes.
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