It happened over a hundred years ago. But there’s a lesson in it that’s still relevant for us.
The story goes that around the turn of the 19th century, there was a problem in Delhi. There were a lot of cobras all around. Fear was setting in, and the British rulers came up with a plan to rid the city of the cobra menace. They announced a handsome cash reward for anyone who would kill a cobra. All that a person had to do was hand over the dead cobra to the authorities and claim the money.
Soon after, the city became safer as people started to kill the cobras and claim their rewards. The number of cobras began to drop. But something interesting happened. Some clever folks saw an opportunity to make money from the reward scheme. So they decided to raise cobras in their backyards. People began to have their own little cobra farms. One by one, they would kill a cobra, hand it in and claim their reward. The authorities were puzzled. On the one hand, the number of cobra sightings had dropped. And on the other, they were continuing to pay out huge sums of money as reward for killing cobras. They decided to stop the reward scheme.
Guess what happened next? All those enterprising folks who were rearing the cobras had no use for them anymore. In the quiet of the night, they let the cobras loose, out in the open. And Delhi now had more cobras than ever before. A scheme intended to bring down the number of cobras ended up having the opposite effect. And thus was born the term ‘The Cobra Effect’.
The cobras have all gone from our streets now, but the Cobra effect continues to make its presence felt in our decision-making. Even today. Faced with a problem, we are quick to take action that seems like a solution. But we don’t always think through what could possibly be second-order effects. Result? The problem gets worse.
Like it happened with a Head of HR I know. She was worried that with only a week left for employees to respond to the engagement survey, only 17% of the employees had filled up the forms. When Global HR put out data on the progress across countries, she felt bad seeing India as a laggard.
Only a handful of people were responding every day. She knew he had to do something to turn the trickle into a flood. She sent out a passionate email, telling employees how the response level was abysmal. And how across teams in the country, very few people had responded to the survey. She was hoping that the message might move people into action.
Guess what happened? Employees who had not responded to the survey saw the mail – and heaved a sigh of relief. They were delighted to discover that they were not the only ones who had not responded. They were in good company! Even the trickle stopped.
In a crisis, you will sometimes come up with a quick decision that will seem like a solution to the problem. Good idea to pause, and ask yourself the question: “And then what?” Looking for the second-order effect helps ensure that your actions don’t result in compounding the problem. Rather than solving it.
Watch out for the cobra effect.
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