The Butterfly Effect: Why Small Acts Can Have Big Effects

Date: September 15th, 2011

We are all in this together. That is true on a lot of levels. Despite the animosity, bellicose rhetoric, intransigence, partisanship, pettiness and lurid reporting, we know, that in certain ways, our fates are entwined. We breathe the same air, drink the same water, travel the same roads, and live on the same globe suspended in space. During difficult times, it is easy to feel defeated. “Nothing I do matters. I might as well give up.” But, like it or not, sometimes the smallest acts can have immeasurable consequences, not only for ourselves but for our families, our neighborhoods, cities, countries, and the world.

Recently, one employee at Arizona Public Service made a mistake. According to APS, “The outage appears to be related to a procedure an APS employee was carrying out in the North Gila substation, which is located northeast of Yuma.” The result was a power outage that covered a large portion of the Southwest United States. “The San Diego blackout, which affected 1.4 million SDG&E customers, was caused by a single power company employee. … An employee of Arizona’s APS had apparently removed some monitoring equipment… and did it wrong. The result: a cascading blackout ….”.

This was not a trivial incident. It was extremely costly. “Preliminary estimates of the cost of last week’s blackout in the greater San Diego region were $97-$118 million, including spoiled food ($12-$18 million), government overtime ($10-$20 million) and lost productivity ($70 million), according to a report by the National University System Institute for Policy Research, which conducts research in the San Diego area. The study did not include costs from the blackout outside of the San Diego area.”

The seeming randomness of such events may seem puzzling to most of us but scientists are attempting to explain such apparently remote connections through what they call chaos theory. This field of inquiry was initiated by a meteorologist at MIT. “In the early 1960s, [Edward] Lorenz realized that small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere–or a model of the atmosphere–could trigger vast and often unsuspected results. These observations ultimately led him to formulate what became known as the butterfly effect–a term that grew out of an academic paper he presented in 1972 entitled: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?””.

We are all connected in highly complex ways

We are part of a system. The same is true for organizations. While a single act may seem inconsequential, we cannot predict all of the possible outcomes that may be triggered. We do not know how things will unfold. One person walks out of a meeting. A boss flirts with a team member. An engineer calls in sick. Even a single lift of the eyebrow during an interview can have impacts far beyond anything that could have been predicted. The effects can be positive or negative. Although the power outage example of an action that produced near catastrophic results, the opposite could happen. One person who decides to check her e-mail one more time before going to bed may discover a brand new way to market their product. One person speaks up in a meeting and changes the entire mood in the positive direction. We’ve all seen this sort of thing happen.

While conducting a training/team building process for a client, the main topic of discussion was, “Management never listens.” It was a given that no matter what you said or did, the senior managers of the company had already made up their minds and no amount of convincing was going to change it. This negative tone was present during the entire event. The team members were full participants, worked hard, and tried to learn from the experience but you could tell that they were not optimistic about being able to make things better. The senior managers of this shipping/processing plant had decided to reduce the number of team members from 32 to 24.

The team members complained that they could not do the job with so few people but were reluctant to confront their senior managers because they believed it would be futile. One team member, however, persisted with the idea that they should go back to their management team with renewed data and evidence and make their case for more people. Finally, he prevailed and the team asked for a meeting with the leadership team. They made their presentation and, shockingly, their managers agreed. Had he not been so “stubborn,” had we not done the team building, had one member of the leadership team been more adamant about not listening, etc., etc., the team might have gone on trying to do the job with too few team members, and continued complaining about management intransigence for years. Who knows! The incident could even be the incident that triggers a major culture shift in the company.

In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell “…defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” The book seeks to explain and describe the “mysterious” sociological changes that mark everyday life. As Gladwell states, “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.” The examples of such changes in his book include the rise in popularity and sales of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s and the precipitous drop in the New York crime rate after 1990.”

Gladwell popularizes some of the ideas behind the “butterfly effect.” He attempts to explain how seemingly random or sudden changes are really the outward manifestations of highly complex, hidden patterns. What may seem to be miraculous events are often the result of the accumulation of many, many small changes. Epidemics often offer a powerful metaphor for such changes. A few incidents of a virus may not trigger much concern. It may seem to be spreading slowly. But, a very small increase in the number of cases can lead to a major outbreak that seems to spread like wildfire.

The same thing can happen in organizations with either good ideas or bad ideas. Chaos theory refers to the mathematics of deterministic systems. That is, systems in which there are real, cause and effect relationships among its elements. But, the theory reveals, the determinants may be so small that they cannot be detected or measured by any known methods. So, the outcome cannot be predicted. It looks like magic. So what? What are the implications for leadership training? For organizational change? For team building? There are, I believe, several important lessons that we can glean from this.

•    Don’t underestimate the importance of your own behavior. Little things that you do can make a difference even if there is no immediately apparent result. An act of kindness may have profound effects that you never see. An act of malice can do the same.
•    Don’t give up too soon. Even if you don’t see the kinds of results you want right away, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing the wrong things. Be patient. Complex change takes time. Teamwork is not a simple thing to accomplish. Teams are made up of complex beings in highly intricate relationships.
•    Take some risks. Things that feel scary may turn out to be more useful and powerful than you can ever imagine. Respectfully confronting an undesirable behavior of a colleague, or even a boss, can sometimes have a refreshingly positive outcome. Just because things have “always been this way” doesn’t mean that they always have to be this way.
•    Don’t make assumptions. Especially when it comes to the motives and intentions of other people, don’t be too quick to interpret their reasons or assign blame. Stay focused on what you want to accomplish and how your own actions may help you get there. We don’t know why others behave as they do. Trying to figure that out may prevent you from acting in ways that will further your goals.
•    Don’t take things personally. The “world” is not out to get you. (“It’s all about me.”) Sometimes things don’t work out the way we want. It doesn’t mean there is a plot or a conspiracy. Remember the chain of causes and effects is very complex. You may be the unintended victim in one of those chains.

Just because you don’t fully understand how the system works, don’t let that prevent you from trying to make it better. Remember that no one else understands it either. Our best choice is to proceed with those actions that we believe are the right things to do and try not to be too discouraged when we don’t get immediate results.

© 2011 William Stinnett, Ph.D., L.E.T. Master Trainer for Gordon Training International

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