There is value in simplicity when it comes to decision making. We’ve all heard the refrain, “keep it simple, stupid”.

But we may not have heard of the law of unintended consequences. If we are unaware of the complexity of the system we are operating in or are ignorant of the levers impacting it, our quest for simplicity may cause more harm than good.

I recall a story where an American charity organisation wanted to donate blankets to a community in southern Africa. Poor communities will surely experience the brunt of the cold in winter, right?

Funds were raised, blankets were purchased and shipped. Charity staff handed over the blankets with a photographer to commemorate their generosity. There were many likes on social media, and the donors back home were happy that their dollars were put to good use.

But that’s not where the story ends. Tragically, a local textile factory in the area closed when demand for their staple product plummeted. What did they produce? You guessed it: blankets. Some families lost their breadwinners, suffering a more challenging year than ever.

There will always be emergent effects that are difficult (and sometimes impossible) to predict due to the nature of complex systems. How then can we make good decisions?

Make sure that you’re solving the right problem, or at the very least not causing another. Invest the time in understanding the system; draw a map of the actors involved and their interactions. Add a good splash of humility too. Hopefully, at the very least, you’ll avoid a “perverse result”.