Pssst… spoiler alert… it’s Effect vs Intent

The title of this post ranks right up there with the most click-bait-y, Upworthy-ish headlines going. But, it turns out that this one distinction in the way you, as a leader, understand your own decision process could mean the difference between your (not to mention your enterprise’s) success, and… well, let’s not consider the alternative. Consider instead this recent ruling from the US Supreme Court.

As reported recently in Psychological Science:

In an historic decision on the Fair Housing Act issued last week, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged that such implicit biases have the potential to be just as damaging as more explicit motivations, noting that housing policies can be considered discriminatory even without evidence of overt discriminatory intent. According to Kennedy, focusing on the disparate impacts of a policy, rather than disparate treatment, acknowledges the role of “the unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment.”

The implications of a direct interpretation of the ruling itself is massive, having all sorts of implications in housing, social policy administration, education, hiring, among other aspects. It is a remarkable recognition of what has emerged from over three decades of solid, empirical research—that there are systemic biases to which people are socialized in a way that influences their decision-making that they themselves might not consciously realize. But, despite the social consequences – and they’re positively huge – that’s not what I’m specifically focusing on in this post.

Instead, let me draw your attention to the particular distinction Justice Kennedy makes in his ruling: He directs us to concentrate on “the disparate impacts of a policy, rather than disparate treatment,” indicating conscious intent.”

Impact – effects – rather than intent. What actually happens to others, rather than what I nominally intended or wanted to happen that might or might not have worked out.

That distinction completely changes the way we consider decisions, and decision-making processes. It completely changes the goal of analysis, and how those who are at the helm of organizational leadership navigate the vessel of their enterprise, irrespective of sector, profit motive, industry, size, physical incarnation, or cyber-presence. It shifts our understanding and framing of intention from a specific goal- or objective-orientation to one that focuses instead on effects. And, it highlights why vision as the dominant sensory metaphor for business (and politics) is so last-century. More on this part later.

Intended Effect vs. Intended Outcome

Consider this: You do or say something that affects someone else – your spouse, your children, your friend, your colleague, your client – and, for whatever reason, it lands wrong. And badly. You stammer, “that wasn’t what I meant….” but it’s too late. The damage is done. And it takes a bouquet of roses, a trip to MickeyD’s, a discount, a box of chocolates, a “let me buy you lunch,” or a drink (or three) to begin to undo the damage. It wasn’t your intention to hurt them, but that was the effect. “Unintended consequences” is the management-speak version of this story. And how often do “unintended consequences” happen? Well, let’s put it this way: the proverbial road to Hades has a lot of construction materials to work with!

As leaders make business decisions, inevitably they intend for the right thing to happen—the right outcome, achieving the right objection, accomplishing the right goal. They almost always have an analysis or some logic that connects the action to said outcome, objective, or goal. Their intent (aside from Wolf of Wall Street types) is most likely a good one, one that typically supports overall corporate or organizational objectives. What they fail to think of, however, are the realm of possible effects, and therefore fail to notice those effects manifesting until the decision has gone off the rails. Worse, of course, is the blind ignorance that the decision HAS gone off the rails—and this occurs most often in politics, but is well-known in the corporate realm. In such cases, an official or spokesperson will boldly state that black is white, up is down, failure is success, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.

Instead, consider the difference in decision-making when it is the impact or effects of the decision that are the foremost consideration. Authentic, contemporary leaders ask, “who (among all the constituencies that might be touched) will be affected by this decision? In what (multiple) ways will we affect them? Are these effects the ones we actually intend to occur?” This line of questioning is markedly different than the typical risk-and-benefit analysis among so-called stakeholders in which, if the benefits outweigh the risks especially in the opinion of the HiPPO-in-the-room, the decision is taken.

This is a different mechanism as well from those driven by that overused-to-the-point-of-cliché sensory metaphor of vision. People whose work I respect, like Jesse Lyn Stoner, asks the simple question, “How do you know where you’re going if you don’t have a vision?” I respond, how do you know if where your vision is leading you is actually where you want or need to go, or more significantly, where you’ll want or need to be when you actually arrive? Tragically, vision – often blurred, misfocused, or hallucinogenic – has led many astray on quixotic quests, or towards the aptly named. Icarus Paradox (goodbye Kodak, Xerox, Digital Equipment Corp, Firestone, Litton, Control Data Corp, Compaq, A&P,… all of whose leaders, by the way, possessed – or were possessed by – visions).

Put simply, vision drives intended outcomes. Precisely that against which Justice Kennedy cautions.

Tactility: Operationalizing Intended Effect

Over the past few years, I’ve written about The End of Vision, Living Without Goals, and even More on The End of Vision and vision’s associated problematics. Here’s the is <tl;dr> version: Tactility in leadership first asks the simple question, “who do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them, today?” As a matter of leadership process – “navigating through an ever uncharted and unchartable milieu,” as Marshall McLuhan puts it – tactility asks another simple question: “are the things we’re doing and the decisions we’re making having the intended effect(s), or should we course correct? Changing one’s mind or modifying – even reversing – a decision previously taken, is not a demonstration of weakness, “flip-flopping,” or (necessarily) an admission of being wrong: it is the prudent application of a well-understood principle of navigation. Navigating for intended effects rather than holding firm to a prior decision (which, by definition was made without the benefit of complete information) enables successful leadership, even – and especially – in a complex environment replete with wicked problems and social messes.Navigating for effects creates complex consistency.

Moreover, collaboratively and inclusively developing the tactility for your organization enables everyone to actively participate in that process of navigation, and that brings with it a whole host of goodness, from activating intrinsic motivation, enhancing employee engagement, encouraging innovation, and ushering the 21st century into your organization.