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Butterfly Effect in the Workplace
Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [email@example.com]
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
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
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 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
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
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!
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