Making business decisions can often lead to unintended consequences, but they aren't always negative



While I may have forgotten many of the Systems Thinking concepts (or they have been absorbed into my approach to problem-solving in business), the Law of Unintended Consequences stays with me and hits me upside the head most days. Essentially, and simply, the law states that making business decisions (changes in “closed systems”) can often lead to unintended consequences. You know, build a dam and you might kill an endangered fish species. Try to enjoy a tobacco product, and a stupid thing like cancer might develop.

The Law of Unintended Consequences is not like Murphy’s Law (“What can go wrong will go wrong”), but they are related. Outcomes that spring from unintended consequences, however, are not always negative, just different from the outcomes you were expecting. And the whole notion behind the Law of Unintended Consequences is to be aware of them, not be surprised by them, and accept them, even try to leverage them as part of the business learning process.

And of course that got me to thinking about the unintended consequences that I have experienced in my marketing career and in the business marketing decisions I have made, either alone or in concert with other smart people or organizations.

Once, our task was to drive business in a small slot area that was new and was adjacent to a great Southwest-themed restaurant we had just opened. So it seemed to make sense to serve free food samples to slot players in this area, with the chef even doing some exhibition cooking there to enhance the sights and smells as well. The unintended consequence was that while we drove only small increases in slot play (many players would wait to play only when the food was being served and not before or after), we drove huge increases in the restaurant’s food covers.

Another time our casino management team thought it would be a great loyalty-building idea to approach active slot players, introduce themselves (with their impressive titles) and offer to personally assist the guest with any need they might have at that moment. Well, many guests just wanted to be left alone to play their slot machine, others said things like “Let me win” (try dealing with that request), and the only real need we identified was “Get me a drink”. And of course the unintended consequences of this well-intentioned effort, when we went to get those drinks and serve them, were the angry complaints from the cocktail servers whose job it was to get those drinks - even when we gave them any guest tips we earned from our executive efforts.

Another unintended consequence occurred when I worked for a casino that had a very profitable area containing popular midway games. Of course, partnering with several local McDonald’s restaurants makes sense if you can have them hand out free passes for your casino’s midway games to cash-paying food customers at their restaurants. Except if you don’t control the free pass distribution at McDonald’s, in which case you may have the unintended consequence of attracting only a few McDonald’s employees to your midway games, each with lots of free midway game passes.

Another time it was a casino client that experienced the unintended consequence. Attempting to drive business at its separate gas station location the casino introduced a $5 cash rebate for gas purchases (over a minimum amount) with the $5 being refunded at the casino’s players club. Club membership was not required, but it was assumed most people would join the club and of course play a little, since, well, they were in the casino with $5 in their hot little hands. Well, the promotion drove gas sales, but the unintended consequences were the casino’s increased promotion costs, longer lines at the players club and a lack of incremental slot play from the gas-buying target audience.

Recently, a Reno area slot bar/restaurant experienced unintended consequences with a 10-cent chicken wings promotion. Wings were 10 cents each with a two-dozen maximum order, and customers could only get them if they were seated at a bar-side video poker game. Well, throngs of people came in for the cheap wings (and ordered a few cheap drinks with which to wash down the wings). But the unintended consequence was that the bar’s loyal, regular video poker players couldn’t get on a machine during many hours of the promotion, which ran for a month.

While many of these unintended consequences may sound negative, they really don’t have to be. They merely are examples of real feedback from real customers. And if you had been listening to them all along your unintended consequences would have simply been customer-driven results.