Sometimes trying to fix a problem only makes it worse.

China learned this lesson the hard way in the 1950s.

As part of the Great Leap Forward movement, the Chinese government launched a campaign to eliminate four pests that were seen as harmful to agriculture: sparrows, rats, flies, and mosquitoes.

The campaign targeted sparrows because they were believed to eat too much grain. People were organised to destroy sparrow nests and eggs, and noise-making tactics were used to exhaust the birds.

But this campaign ultimately led to the Great Chinese Famine and the deaths of millions of people.

Why? It turns out that sparrows also eat a lot of insects, including locusts.

Without the sparrows to keep the locust population in check, the locusts destroyed crops and caused food shortages.

The government only considered the immediate, first-order effects of eliminating the sparrows. They did not anticipate the long-term, second-order effects on the ecosystem and food supply.

Another great example of a failure in second-order thinking was dubbed the “Cobra Effect,” a phenomenon that occurs when a solution to a problem actually makes the problem worse.

In colonial India, the British government paid people to catch cobra snakes so that there would be fewer of them.

Suddenly dead cobras came flooding in—more than the British had ever anticipated.

Why? The Indians were smart. People realised they could make money by catching and selling the snakes to the government, but they could make even more money by breeding them specifically to turn in for the bounty.

When the government realised this unintended consequence, they stopped the bounty program. But instead of reducing the cobra population, this decision led to a decrease in the number of cobras being bred and an increase in the wild cobra population.

Don’t just think about the consequences of your actions—think about the consequences of the consequences. What happens if I do this, and what possibilities does that change unlock?

Consider the range of possible outcomes. Ask why, when, and “then what?” See through your blind spots.

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