Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Butterfly Effect in the Workplace

Have you ever noticed that small, seemingly insignificant things done at work, often without any real thought or intent, can surprisingly lead to significant changes over time? These are often minor shifts or changes that no one is even consciously aware of at the time, but which, upon reflection, were the initiating points of what led to substantial changes in direction or outcome. There is an old saying, “When a butterfly flaps its wings in China, it can lead to a tornado in Kansas”, or variations of this, which has become known at the Butterfly Effect, and this can often occur in the workplace. Small changes that are made today, often for seemingly independent purposes, can unknowingly impact the outcome of a program or project you are working on in unimaginable ways tomorrow.

The biggest opportunity for the butterfly effect in the workplace comes during a well-attended meeting where a person in a position of power, most often an executive, makes an offhand comment about something said, and people from multiple organizations interpret this person’s offhand comment as an opportunity for them to initiate actions that they believe will address what the executive desired. They may or may not have correctly interpreted the executive’s comments, but independent and possibly contradictory actions in numerous organizations may commence. These actions may, in turn, promote subsequent actions further down the line, resulting in a combination of butterfly effect and ripple effect as more and more people get involved. Thus an offhand comment (a flap of a butterfly’s wings) may result in multiple changes that were never intended that may affect multiple activities across multiple organizations (tornados in multiple organizations in the company).

As an example, an executive at a large meeting makes an offhand comment that a certain feature may be useful in a product or program the company is working on, and:
  • Someone in sales takes it upon themselves to poll their customers to see what they think about this and get requests for multiple variations of the feature.
  • Someone in marketing takes it upon themselves to do to market research to see what such a feature would do to differentiate the company from its competitors, to mixed results.
  • Someone in engineering takes it upon themselves to have one of their engineers implement a simplified version of this feature to determine what the impact on schedules, staffing, testing, cost, delivery, etc. would be; the actual impact of a real version of this feature is not examined.
  • Someone in manufacturing takes it upon themselves to see what the impact would be on the manufacturing processes in their current location; the impact in all of the other relevant manufacturing locations, domestic and foreign, are not examined.
  • And so on with finance, purchasing, customer service, etc.

Now if all of these activities don’t disrupt current activities and all show positive results, then this could lead to a well received, timely, and profitable addition to the product, project or program. But more likely each of these activities will take more time than expected, have impact on more people than expected, have adverse impact on schedules just to properly evaluate the impacts, and will produce conflicting views of whether or not it makes sense. These conflicting views will lead to more meetings, investigations, evaluations, decisions, and other activities resulting in the eyes of multiple organizations being taken off the job at hand to the detriment of the goals of the company (see Keep Your Eyes on THE GOAL!).

The butterfly effect can, of course, also occur within a single organization or group where a boss or almost anyone makes a comment and one or more in the meeting take it upon themselves to turn that comment into actions that may or may not have been intended. The breadth of such butterfly effects may be smaller in a smaller group, but the impact may still be large with significant consequences.

The butterfly effect can even be initiated by people relatively low on the totem pole who engage in a hallway or water cooler discussion where one makes a seemingly innocuous comment and one or more others initiate actions based on that informal interaction.

The butterfly effect can also be initiated by events entirely outside of the organization or company. For example, some new local, state, or federal changes in laws or regulations can have a large impact that may hit the company in unexpected ways out of the blue. Similarly a competitor may make changes that your company simply must respond to with changes of its own. And again, different people or organizations within the company may react in different ways and initiate differing types of actions that can have major repercussions down the line.

Changes by intent do not generally fall under the butterfly effect definition, as they are intentional, planned and guided. Examples could include planned changes in policy within an organization or the company at large , or intentional changes in direction in a project, program, or product. However, there may well be unintentional effects that occur while implementing intentional changes that could be considered butterfly effects.

In some cases the results of the butterfly effect can be great and very positive (possible but rare), but they can also be merely somewhat positive, or neutral, or negative (more likely), or even disastrous. The results may turn out to be the opposite side of serendipity (see Serendipity Can Change Your Life!)

So what can or should be done to recognize a butterfly effect incident and to help minimize or direct its potential impact?

First, realize that a butterfly effect incident often cannot be recognized except upon reflection, after the effect is already accomplished, and when it may be nearly impossible to unravel it. 

While you may not be able to recognize a butterfly effect incident when it occurs, you can and must do all you can to recognize its impact. Closely manage and monitor your project/program and quickly identify if changes in direction or schedule to the plan are occurring and why. Stand up and call attention to changes when you spot them and indicate the likely impacts on cost, schedule, resources, or whatever. Let those in power understand the real impact such changes will have on the outcome of planned work so that conscious decisions can be made to accept the changes, with their consequences, or to get back on track without the changes (see Pound the Facts, Not the Table). Communication is absolutely critical (see What We’ve Got Here Is A Failure To Communicate!).

The butterfly effect in the workplace is real and sometimes unavoidable, but to the extent that you can, you need to be alert to its occurrence and impact, and be ready to sound the alarm!

1 comment:

  1. Very nice blog, thanks for this's been good reading this..


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