Tech Leaders Can Do More to Avoid Unintended Consequences

In 1936, social scientist Robert Merton proposed a framework for understanding different types of unintended consequences: perverse outcomes, unexpected drawbacks, and unforeseen benefits. The choice of Merton’s words (“unintended” rather than “unintentional”) was by no means random. But the terms, over time, have been combined.

“Unforeseen” is our inability or unwillingness to predict future harmful consequences. “Unintentional” simply suggests consequences he can not imagine, no matter how hard we try. The difference is more than semantic: the latter removes entrepreneurs and investors from responsibility for the unintended harmful consequences. I like the term “unintended consequences” because it puts the responsibility for negative results directly in the hands of investors and entrepreneurs.

Merton described five key factors that prevent people from predicting or even considering the long-term consequences: ignorance, short-term, values, fear, and error, assuming that habits that worked in the past will apply to the situation. current. I would add a sixth: speed.

Speed ​​is the enemy of confidence. To make informed decisions about which products, services, people, and information deserve our trust, we need a little friction to slow down, basically the opposite of slipping and infinite and easy scrolling. And speed is a double issue.

Seconds Our world in data, it took more than 50 years for more than 99 percent of U.S. households to adopt radio to listen to programs in their homes and cars. It took 38 years for color TV to achieve similar adoption. By comparison, Instagram took just three months to reach one million users when it launched in 2010. TikTok reached its billionth user in 2021, just four years after its global launch, half the time. which took Facebook, YouTube or Instagram to achieve. same milestone, and three years faster than WhatsApp. When the consumer adoption period is compressed from decades to months, it is easy for employers to ignore the deeper and often subtle changes in behavior that these innovations are introducing at an accelerated pace.

Entrepreneurs will often tell themselves the story that they are still in the “novelty” or “sandbox” phase, when millions of people are actually using their product. This is reflected in the fact that the original mission statements of the big tech companies, such as “Don’t be evil” (Google) or “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer” (Facebook), are they use much further. its expiration date, sometimes even years after the founders were forced to acknowledge not only the serious shortcomings of their innovations, but the serious consequences of these shortcomings.

At the same time, most entrepreneurs focus heavily on accelerating their growth. I’ve only seen a “slow growth” strategy once on a pitch deck. “The old mantra of ‘Move fast and break things’ is an engineering design principle … it’s not a company design principle,” writes Hemant Taneja, managing partner of venture capital firm General Catalyst, at his book. Expected consequences. Taneja argues that VCs should look for “minimum virtuous products” rather than just “minimum viable products.” A powerful question for determining the virtues of a product over time is: If you were born in a different time or country, how would you feel about that idea?

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