The law of unintended consequences

What we are seeing here is an unintended consequence of something completely different from the anticipated end-result.

Last week in New York I was astounded to hear a business head from one of the multinationals, who - just off the flight from Shanghai – remarked that in her business right now, turnover rates for young people is approaching 80%.

Imagine for a moment the consequences of 80% turnover – constant recruitment and induction combined with massive overwork as others (called appropriately ‘the survivors’) catch up on the work that those that have just walked should have done. And that’s not even taking into consideration the longer-term impact on succession planning and leadership development, or indeed the possibilities of hanging onto intellectual property or signature processes.

‘Ahh’…I said ‘I guess they are moving for higher salaries’. That would fit with my own expectations of the over heating Chinese labour market when it comes to the talented young.  But, I was wrong. Instead, she had discovered that people had not left the firm for a higher salary ….they had simply left with no other job offer in their hand. Moreover, they had every intention of staying out of the labour market until something better (more interesting, less stressful and more developmental) came up.

What we are seeing here is an unintended consequence of something completely different from the anticipated end-result. In this case, the end–result of hyper mobility of talented young people in cities such as Shanghai, is in part an unintended consequence, so my Chinese colleague told me, of the one child per family rule. In the larger Chinese families of the past, it would be impossible for parents to financially support their working age children through their 20s and 30s. But in one child families, with more resources focused on the single child - parents appear to be willing and indeed able to step into the economic breach.

Last week I talked about the acceleration of some of the trends we are watching – I highlighted the situation in Egypt, where the interface between technological developments, rising mobile connectivity, rapidly changing societal norms and the emergence of a new generation of thinkers – together have created enormous energy and volition.

But as we can see in the emerging mobility of talented Chinese youth – sometimes these events arise from much less understandable paths.

Scholars of complexity theory have often drawn attention to the limits of rational prediction when it comes to imagining how a system will actually work. They have also shown that it is often these unintended consequences that create some of the chaos that can be such an important feature of a complex system in motion.

And that’s very much the case as we think about the future of work. Yes, we can follow, as indeed we are, the trends we believe will change the face of work. And we can even begin to imagine how these trends will intersect and work with each other to create a vast array of possible outcomes and scenario’s. However, what is much more difficult to predict - and for which we need to be particularly observant and sensitive – are the unintended consequences, which through there very nature are less amenable to rational prediction.

So, lets take a closer look at these as they emerge – for, as my acquaintance in China has found – it could be that unintentional consequences frame the future with even more power, than the trends we are observing so diligently.

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