Combatting The Cobra Effect With Bottom-Up Planning

The Cobra Effect refers to a situation where an attempted solution to a problem actually makes the problem worse as a result of unintended consequences.

The term comes from an unverified story taking place during the British colonial rule of India. Concerned about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi, the British government offered a bounty for every one killed. Initially, this was successful, with a massacre of the snakes.. However, enterprising locals started breeding cobras to collect more of the bounty. When the government realised this, they canceled any more rewards, leading the breeders to release their now worthless snakes, causing the cobra population to increase beyond the number of the original population.

What didn’t work in India also didn’t work in Vietnam. The Hanoi rat bounty was a pest control programme implemented by French colonial authorities in 1902. Due to concerns about the spread of bubonic plague, a bounty was offered for each rat killed. To claim the bounty, people had to submit the severed tail of a rat as proof. However, it backfired spectacularly as instead of reducing the rat population, it incentivised people to breed rats and cut off their tails, releasing them back into the sewers to reproduce and generate more tails for bounties. Again, this led to an increase in the rat population.

The Cobra Effect highlights the importance of considering potential unintended consequences before implementing solutions. It often arises when:

Incentives are misaligned: The reward system encourages behaviour that counteracts the intended outcome. For example the target to reduce times on the call in telephone contact centres means the very system designed to improve customer service ends up harming it.

The system is complex: The problem exists within a complex system with multiple interacting factors, making it difficult to predict how a single intervention will affect the overall system. The use of pesticides in agriculture often results in killing not only the target pests but also beneficial insects like bees, which are crucial for pollination and crop production.

There’s short-term thinking: Focusing on immediate results without considering long-term consequences such as the over-use of antibiotics where the very solution meant to protect us from disease is now contributing to a new and potentially more dangerous problem.

The Cobra Effect can wreak havoc within organisations where there are a lot of top down targets. If targets are solely focused on a single metric, employees might prioritise achieving that metric at any cost, even if it means sacrificing the organisation’s overall goals or purpose. This can lead to unethical behaviour, cutting corners, or manipulating data to meet the target. People may become hyper-focused on the target, neglecting other crucial areas of their responsibilities. They might find ways to “game” the system to meet targets without actually improving performance but to make their own numbers look better.

How to discourage the Cobra Effect

I’ve been thinking about the Cobra Effect a lot as we are currently assembling a team of people aimed at removing silos and developing shared goals around customer outcomes. Bromford is shifting towards a place-based working model, focusing on specific locations and tailoring services to the unique needs of the people within those communities.

This place-based working model will form a silo-less team around shared goals. This means that , firstly, they have to understand the specific needs and aspirations of individuals within a community before co-creating solutions with them, rather than imposing top-down solutions. This will also require the need to understand the complex systems at play within a community, recognising that social, economic, and environmental factors are often interconnected. The hypothesis is that by taking a systemic perspective the team can develop more holistic and sustainable solutions with the community.

As we’ve worked towards the launch we’ve had to resist the management urge to manage. The urge to set measurements, targets and incentives before we have engaged the community or even assembled a team.

But resist it we must.

The Cobra Effect is best nullified by a process of bottom up planning which involves engaging frontline employees to gather insights and ideas, and refining them into shared goals. This approach enhances employee engagement, improves target accuracy, fosters innovation, and strengthens alignment. It empowers employees to not just contribute to the goal-setting process, but to lead on it..

Any course of action in complex territory requires at least five questions:

What are our assumptions?

What could go wrong? How could this fail?

How could external influences affect the outcome?

What evidence are we looking at to determine success?

Conventional management promotes linear thinking.

We need to avoid linear thinking. A straight line between two points looks efficient but rarely is.

When managers say if we do this then that is bound to happen it pays dividends to remind them of the Cobra Effect.

People will always find a shortcut when there’s an incentive – and not just with snakes and rats.

Related: Institutional ‘Forgetting’ and the Failure of Corporate Memory