Butterfly Effect

Chaos theory emerged from a variety of scientific and mathematical disciplines.

A significant piece of work was done by a mathematical meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, 12 years before the term “chaos” was first used in mathematics. He accidentally discovered an infinitesimal change in a complex environment (the example he gave was the flap of a butterfly’s wing in a weather system) can over time influence a huge change (for example a tornado). When such an effect of minute changes are plotted, it becomes clearer why it is known as the butterfly effect.

The butterfly effect is significant as it seems to go against the traditional wisdom of “The effort you put in determines what you get out”. It shows than within a complex system a small change can yield a large difference. So a small effort in fact can get a big result. This is significant for leadership. We are conditioned to believe hard work and serious effort alone gain results. This gives rise to a work ethic that says to get results out of an organisation you must put in long hours. Sadly many a marriage and home has been broken by such an assumption. The butterfly effect shows this assumption does not necessarily have to be true.

Can the butterfly effect be applied to leadership? Experience would suggest yes. “Catalytic mechanisms” are an example. These are small changes to company policy that yield large results. Examples include:

  • 3M – allow a small proportion of time to be used by staff for pet projects. This is how the Post It note came about;
  • National Vulcan – removed clock-in machines for staff to engender more self-management and team working;
  • Birmingham Midshires – included CEO’s home phone number on complaint forms enabling a more focused response by staff to customer complaints;
  • Granite Rock – allow customers to “short pay” (i.e. not pay for anything not 100% happy with) which helped them become the aggregates market leader in service.

Catalytic mechanisms are not a pancea.  They need a context within which results can flow. See Organisational Leadership for more information.