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How to navigate the unforeseen consequences of change

In real-world transformations, every intervention comes with unexpected side effects. That’s why in our change management initiatives, we emphasize the importance of understanding and preparing for these “side effects.” After all, when driving change, you’re responsible for its aftermath too!

The “side effects” label missing in most transformation initiatives

A classic illustration of this is the cobra effect. In India, at one point, there was an alarming surge in the cobra population causing significant nuisance. The government, in its bid to solve this, decided to offer a financial incentive for every captured cobra.

Seeing an opportunity, many of the poorer residents began breeding cobras to then “sell” to the government. When the authorities realized this, they terminated the program, leading many to release the bred cobras into the wild. The result? The cobra issue was exacerbated rather than resolved.

The cobra effect serves as a stark reminder that interventions can have unpredictable outcomes. In the change programs we guide, we set clear expectations around these potential side effects. Our aim is to have ample “buffer capacity” on hand: maximizing the benefits of positive effects while mitigating any negatives as best as possible.

Otherwise, there’s always the risk – to put it colloquially – of “being bitten in the ass by your own intervention.”


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