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Several years ago, while consulting for a web retail company, I had an extremely stressed out customer service manager come to me with a problem. He was trying desperately to get an order out the door in time for Christmas — but it was proving near impossible.

The customer had paid handsomely for overnight shipping with expedited processing. He clearly needed his order the next day, but several items were out of stock and the customer service manager couldn’t reach the customer by phone to ask if he would like to be shipped only what was in stock. There was a risk that the customer would be upset either way. Were the company to ship the partial order, he might be upset that the most important products were missing. …


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What is Accidental Evil?

In economics, a negative externality is a cost that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. A classic example involves pollution; when companies pollute the air that we breathe, those in the vicinity feel the effect from health problems while the polluters benefit from less costly manufacturing costs (as low-pollution manufacturing methods are generally more expensive).

Accidental Evil is a form of negative externality that occurs when groups of people work together in a company, a society, a family, or a partnership. In this phenomenon, individuals consider options and make decisions that at the time seem to be the best path forward, but which incur hidden and unconsidered costs on others (and often even the individual making the decision) in unforeseen ways. Ironically, the very reason the decision was often made was to avoid some small exertion of energy, effort, or expense — but as a result of the negative externality, the decision eventually results in exponentially more expense than the alternative choice. …

About

Casey Cobb

Software engineer, angel investor, writer, speaker, inventor, and co-founder of three companies, including web development agency Project Ricochet.

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