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Be careful what you ask for

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

I consider myself a “lucky” parker. On most occasions, I can drive into any city and find a space just outside where i want to be. If there isn’t one, someone will pull out and make one for me just as I’m approaching. That’s exactly what happened to me recently in Seville...

Having parked slap bang in the centre of the city in the only space in a crowded square, I checked for any parking restrictions, couldn’t see any, so wandered off for a coffee. Fortunately, I’d forgotten something, so, after about 30 minutes, headed back. And there they were - a pair of Spanish traffic wardens, all cool with shades on, ticketing every single car in the square. What happened next made me fall in love with the city!

Having explained that (a) I was English, (b) the Portuguese-plated car was my hire car, (c) I wanted to park all day, and (d) that I’d looked for signs about parking restrictions but not seen any, one of the pair walked me over to a (well-hidden) ticket machine, and explained the rather complex rules. Having done that, he asked me to put a euro in the machine, and out came a ticket allowing me to park for 30 minutes. He signed it, told me to put it in my windshield, tore up the penalty ticket, and told me I could park all day.

Over a rather nice lunch, I started to think further about this. It had been unnecessarily nice of him to do that; I was being slightly naughty in taking up a rare parking space for a whole day; and I can’t possibly imagine that happening in the UK to a Spanish driver in London on, say, Irish plates. Why not, though?

Traffic wardens are set targets, so they try and meet them. The same is true for most organisations, but there is often a disconnect between the real, genuine, objective or principle, and the behaviour that is a direct, inevitable, but too often unforeseen consequence of it. If my Spanish traffic warden had been a few short of a ticketing target, would he have let me off? If his pay or promotion depended on it? Unlikely.

In target cultures, we have to be incredibly careful about the unforeseen but inevitable consequences of our targets. NHS A&E waiting times have been in the news recently - a 4 hour wait target has been abolished on the basis that it was leading to undesirable outcomes. Customer service call centres who target staff on a simple number of completed calls will find that calls are often not really finished, and the customer will call back again, even more unhappy. Getting paid to sign people up to products, however unsuitable, has led to massive implications for the financial services sector.

A few critical points can make it more likely to avoid violating the laws of unintended consequences:

Targets have their uses, no doubt. But I spent more money in Seville because of the (probable) lack of a traffic warden target; I’m more likely to visit there again and spend again; and I’m very likely to rave to others about what a fantastic city it is - it is! I’ll also remember to pay for my parking next time - I’m a lucky parker, but not that lucky...

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