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Control Your Cobras

​As the story goes, colonial-era India was infested with cobras. Delhi’s British rulers implemented a bounty program, offering a reward for each dead cobra presented to the government. Officials were delighted when increasing numbers of cobras were offered up for payment.

However, it soon became clear that the program was a bit too successful. An investigation revealed that breeders were busy raising the snakes for the reward money. Furious, the government disbanded the program. The breeders, in turn, released all their cobras. The end result: there were more wild cobras in Delhi than there were when the program began.

Though historians suspect this tale is apocryphal, it persists because it gave its name to a real phenomenon. The cobra effect occurs when the solution to a problem makes the original problem worse. There are numerous examples. When the French colonial government in Vietnam wanted to rid Hanoi of rats, it offered a reward for rat tails. Entrepreneurs began raising rats. In 2007, in Ft. Benning, Georgia, a bounty on feral hogs led to a population explosion when hogs ate the food intended as bait and avoided the traps. 

The cobra effect is not limited to curbing unwanted pests. It can be found in any situation that involves human behavior—including safety and security. Aaron Braaten, president of Xi Safety, a consulting firm to the oil and gas industries in Alberta, Canada, notes that his experience improving safety for workers resulted in a cobra effect. Oil field workers preferred a flannel glove that Braaten says was “cheap, warm, and disposable.” However, these gloves provided no protection from hand injuries, which were common, painful for workers, and cost employers up to $20,000 per injury.  

In an effort to reduce hand injuries, one company invested tens of thousands of dollars in armored gloves. However, the new gloves fit tightly and reduced sensation, which—you guessed it—led to even more serious injuries.

One way for security professionals to avoid the cobra effect is through metrics. A new study by the ASIS Foundation, Inc., gives managers a road map to implementing quality metrics that can be used to address a variety of workplace challenges. An article on the study, beginning on page 54, explains how one company used metrics to identify safe areas in which to open new stores. Another company used metrics to reduce nearby mobile phone thefts. By quantifying both the problem and possible solutions, metrics can help you control your cobras—without any unintended consequences.