Unintended consequences and unexpected opportunities.

Many years ago, I rented a room in a house owned by an Italian woman. Well, not really an Italian woman – at least, not on the outside. She had a perfect, cut-glass accent, and lived in one of the posher parts of London. But on the inside, she was Italian. She’d spent her formative years with her English parents in Rome, and had later moved to Milan. And then to England. What amazed me about her was that nothing ever got in her way. And I’m not just talking about her driving, which was fast, dangerous and highly illegal. It was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, especially in sedate West London. No, it was the way she got around life’s little irritations that impressed me. Whenever a problem cropped up, she found a solution. Rules and regulations didn’t faze her: she simply found a way to circumvent them. One day, after a particularly cunning solution, she smiled broadly at me, and came out with a delightful Italian expression: Fatta la legge, trovato l’inganno! Which means that as soon as a law is made, the workaround is found. More regulation doesn’t mean more compliance, or a more orderly society. The unintended consequence of laws is that people quickly find ways to bypass them. Make more laws, and people simply find more ways. And the Italians are good at finding ways: it’s estimated that the black market would add another 30% to their GDP. In the UK, by comparison, it’s a mere 5-10%.

Penny dreadful

Unintended consequences are one of life’s unavoidable problems (or opportunities – you decide). Whenever you take a decision – to change your pricing, launch a marketing campaign, target a sector of the market, expand your product range – there are unintended consequences. When the Net Book Agreement, which had set fixed prices for books in the UK for almost 100 years, was scrapped in mid-90s, it was hailed as a good thing. Henceforth, the market would prevail as these old, outdated restrictive practices were swept away. The result? Big chains got bigger. Small bookshops couldn’t compete. Supermarkets started selling books, and set their selling price below the cost price of many bookshops. In some cases, supermarkets simply used books as loss leaders to draw people into the store to buy food. Publishing houses took fewer chances, as blockbusters ruled the day. Large book chains demanded funds for marketing, and supermarkets vetoed book covers which they claimed wouldn’t work for their customers. A good thing indeed. The French – as they mostly do – took a different approach. Culture was an exception, they said. Books weren’t a commodity, to be sold like so many bottles of mineral water or tins of cassoulet. And so in France, to this day, the maximum a book can be discounted is 5%, whether you’re a mega-supermarket, an online retailer or a tiny independent bookseller. The result? More books, more bookshops, more choice. Vive la différence.

Text maniac

You can’t stand still. And you can’t predict the future – so don’t try to. Unintended consequences are everywhere, unpredictable and mostly unstoppable. And sometimes, the consequences cause a chain reaction:
  • Text messages, thought to be a nice-to-have-but-essentially-useless add-on to the mobile phone, took off in a way nobody could have foreseen. Today, they’re worth billions of pounds a year to mobile operators.
  • Twitter, building on SMS success, has come from nowhere to be everywhere. It makes no sense and defies analysis. But it is what it is, and it’s here to stay.
  • Burglaries have suddenly became easier, thanks to people’s constant tweeting about their movements. I’m just popping out to the gym, they tell the world. Leaving the house empty, of course – a problem that the daring website Please Rob Me highlighted to startling effect. (It’s since suspended its operations, having made its point.)
Stuff happens. It’s how you deal with it that makes the difference. Think ahead, identify the most likely problems, and work out your strategy. Don’t let yourself get stuck in Indecision Alley – it’s  dead end. And when the unexpected happens – and it will – go with the flow and react fast. See if there’s an opportunity lurking in the midst of it all, seize it with both hands, and run with it. Much as a software company I know did. They launched what they thought was a niche solution, aimed at a gap in the market. But they weren’t sure, as the saying goes, whether there was a market in the gap. There was. Such a big market, in fact, that they completely re-engineered their company around that one solution, which has since become a runaway success. So you see? Good stuff happens too.

Ciao bella

When my landlady’s parents went to live in Italy, they thought it would give their daughter a second language, an appreciation of art, culture and fine wine, as well as a broader world outlook. It did. But it also gave her a lifelong disrespect for rules, a fiery temper and a quirky method of getting out of a tight parking spot. One morning, I stood at my bedroom window, gaping in disbelief as she drove her car a little forwards, then a little backwards, in the impossibly small space. She nudged the car in front, and the car behind, and in front, and behind. Well I say nudged, but I did hear a pretty loud bump each time she made contact. Bump, bump, bump, bump. And then, with just enough space to swing out, she was off. Hurtling down a suburban London road with reckless abandon, singing along to the sound of Claudio Baglioni on her car stereo. Unintended. But pretty damned impressive. Find out more: