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Reflection – Cen (Mia) Zhao

by on November 5, 2007

“Butterfly Effect” in Change Management

On Wednesday’s class, we discussed the issue that small changes can have unpredictable and major impacts to the entire organization. This reminded me a famous theory called “butterfly effect.” Here, I would like to talk about the application of butterfly effect in change management.

The butterfly effect is a phrase that encapsulates the more technical notion of sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory. Small variations of the initial condition of a nonlinear dynamical system may produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system. The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado to appear. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different.[1]

Since organization can viewed as a system, any change within or outside the organization has the possibility to become a “flapping wing” in the whole system. The example we mentioned in the class included Microsoft’s change of removing the towel and small change in the executives’ meeting. The effects of the changes in these instances amplified hundreds, even thousands of times. Sometimes, one behavior, even one eye contact can cause a huge difference in the organization. From my own experience, I remember that my high school established the rule of prohibiting students eating while walking on campus just because our president occasionally saw two students chocking when they were walking eat. Later on, just because of this rule, our school became one of the cleanest campuses in the city for much fewer garbage. However, one of grocery stores within our campus had to close its business also for the reason of this rule.

There are thousands of scenarios like this happening every day, which might or might not cause the huge change in the organizations. But since everything change has its sequences, it is hard to predict how huge the effect will be and whether the change results are positive or negative.

From managerial perspective, managers should seriously consider the possible sequences and subsequences of every change that is going to be implemented in the organization. People who can foresee the future further always success in the change management. Think about Microsoft’s removing towel as example. Managers might predict that employees might complain about that change. But they did not expect that such complaints will change their working attitudes, which further influence the progress of the projects. Therefore, if managers could think about the “butterfly effect” in advance, they would become much more careful about every change when they made their decisions.

Sometimes when changes have to be made, managers should also think about what factors will possibly amply the results. A “flapping wing” could not cause tornado without the help of the suitable atmosphere. Thus, a lot of changes cannot get its expected results for the lack of communications and possible ways of implementation while other changes get the unexpected results because of the improper “atmosphere.” We cannot ignore these factors that will influence the change results in the organization.

Above all, I think if managers in organizations could think about the principal of “butterfly effect” when they are going to make decisions, they could avoid unexpected results and better decisions.

[1] “Butterfly Effect.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect (2007)

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