Barry Newell and Christopher Doll of United Nations University wrote an article titled Systems Thinking and the Cobra Effect.

Cobra Effect:  The British Colonial Government came up with a plan to control the population of venomous cobras in Delhi. They offered a bounty for every dead cobra turned in. While many bounties were paid, the program was ineffective at controlling the number of cobras in the city.  “Under the new policy, cobras provided a rather stable source of income. In addition, it was much easier to kill captive cobras than to hunt them in the city. So the snake catchers increasingly abandoned their search for wild cobras, and concentrated on their breeding programs.” Once officials discovered what was going on, they stopped the bounty program. “As a final act the breeders, now stuck with nests of worthless cobras, simply released them into the city, making the problem even worse than before! The lesson is that simplistic policies can come back to bite you.”

« We live in a highly connected world where management actions have multiple outcomes. When action is taken, the intended outcome might occur, but a number of unexpected outcomes will always occur.  »

« Developing methods to help us visualise and understand cause-and-effect relations in complex systems is of great importance. We need ways to progress beyond linear thinking. In particular, we need to understand the concept of feedback and appreciate the dominant role it plays in determining system responses to management initiatives. »

The article explains reinforcing feedback loops and balancing (goal-seeking) feedback loops.

« In a complex, real-world system there will be multiple reinforcing and balancing feedback loops, interacting with each other. Despite this, most of us still think in terms of simple causal chains, and immediate, linear effects. In particular, we tend to overlook feedback between decisions that are made by management groups that are operating in isolation from one another. This cross-sector feedback is largely invisible because there is little communication between the managers in the different ‘silos’. To make matters worse, major feedback effects are often delayed (sometimes by decades or longer!), or occur at locations distant from the triggering actions making them hard to detect or attribute. »

« The behaviour of a complex system emerges from the feedback interactions between its parts.  »

See also Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows and It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Business by Rick Nason.


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