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The Cobra Effect

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

I always enjoy situations where things are not what they seem, where subtle effects produce unexpected outcomes, and especially when the result of an action is the exact opposite of what the original intention was. It’s not so much that I enjoy seeing people fail (although sometimes, depending on the person involved, I do) its just that I like the weirdness the laws of unintended consequences often result in.

The most interesting sub-type of the law of unintended consequences is, I think, the Cobra Effect. In this effect an attempt to fix a problem results in the exact opposite: the problem is made worse.

The law got its name from an alleged incident during the British colonial rule of India. Whether this really happened – and if it did what the exact details were – is disputed, but this is a great anecdote anyway.

Apparently the British were concerned about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi and decided to offer a bounty to get rid of them. Any dead snake a person (mostly native Indians) brought in would earn a reward. Initially things went well and the cobra population decreased, but after a while it was noticed that more and more were being handed in. After a while the British government figured out that some enterprising individuals were breeding the snakes in “snake farms” and then killing them for the reward. Of course the British wanted to stop this so they refused to give out any further rewards. Naturally the farms were no longer viable so the “farmers” released all of their snakes resulting in an even greater population than at the beginning of the intervention!

As I said above, whether the story is accurate is hard to ascertain because the sources I could find were hardly definitive. But that’s not really the point. The point is that the effect itself is real and occurs in many different areas of modern life.

Here’s another example from more recent times…

Road safety experts assumed that cyclists would be safer if they wore a bike helmet. This seems to make sense because head injuries are a common result of accidents. So many countries enacted laws to force cyclists to wear helmets. However some research indicates that people wearing helmets are actually more likely to be injured on the road. Why? Because car drivers assume cyclist with helmets are safer so don’t give them so much space. And the cyclists themselves feel safer so take more risks. This leads to more accidents and because of the way bike crashes happen the helmets often offer only minimal protection anyway. So in fact the number of injuries goes up, not down.

I must emphasise that this research is uncertain and is disputed by many people and cycle helmet laws are still in force in most countries, but the increased risk is real. Whether it really outweighs any protection the helmets offer is unsettled, but it’s certainly an excellent candidate for the cobra effect.

I will now offer an example from the experience of my colleague (whom I have mentioned before – he works in a very similar organisation to mine) Fred (not his real name). When he started at his current place of work (many years ago) there were few rules and not a lot of supervision of what different staff were doing. This meant that sometimes people would work on wacky projects of doubtful relevance, occasionally work odd hours, and not worry too much about keeping track of leave taken, etc.

Over the years a more and more structured model was introduced to control these “rogue” behaviours. Work was charged using a cost recovery model where the client (from the same organisation) had to pay for the time taken to complete the project, hours worked were watched and recorded, and leave taken was strictly enforced.

You would think this would result in a far more efficient workplace wouldn’t you? Well if you have been paying attention your answer should be “no”. In fact the total opposite was achieved. People stopped working on innovative projects and just did the stuff which generated income easily. They deliberately worked more slowly so they could charge more hours. They got sick of the inept management and left the organisation completely. They only worked the standard hours instead of working to all hours of the night to get projects finished. And they used up their total allotment of leave instead of just taking a part of it as was common before it was all carefully tallied.

Not only that but all the extra organisation meant that a large number of extra administration staff were required until it got to the point where there were more admin staff than actual core technical staff (I must admit that he doesn’t have exact numbers on that, but it must be close).

At this point you would think the management would see the error of their ways and at least try to go partly back to the old system wouldn’t you? Well no, in fact they just made the new system more and more draconian and bureaucratic because it go to the point where they forgot about why they were really there and the bureaucracy become their aim in life instead of just being a way to achieve the real goal of providing a good service.

And here is one final example from Fred which bizarrely closely matches one in my own experience. The organisation he works for is audited (obviously, since all similar organisations are) but for some reason (presumably total ineptitude) the auditor couldn’t find any obvious problems. But he had to earn his grossly inflated fee some way so he insisted that the free coffee being provided for the staff should be stopped. That should save a few hundred dollars a year, right?

Well no, and anyone with a modicum of common sense would see the cobra effect would strike there! Instead of sitting in their offices working and drinking coffee the staff now had to go to the nearest cafe, so hours of extra work time per day was lost. The few hundred dollars per year saved was wasted in a week. That should have been obvious before the decision was made, it should have been even more obvious when it happened, but the free coffee and the extra hours of work have never returned. The cobra strikes!

When you start thinking about it you see the cobra effect everywhere. Generally it involves decisions made by people who are fairly out of touch with reality, live in their own pathetic little dream worlds, and are unprepared to really examine the consequences of their actions (in other words politicians, managers, accountants, lawyers, and other similar low-lifes). It can happen to anyone though and that’s why everyone should be prepared to say “we were wrong, that didn’t work the way we expected, we’d better try something else”. But can you really imagine a politician or manager ever saying that? No, me neither.

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