Most people have heard of the ‘butterfly effect’ — a butterfly flaps its wings in Rio de Janeiro and a tornado hits Chicago as small changes can have large effects elsewhere. This is the popular version. Yet the real version is far more interesting and far more useful for organisations to know about.
In 1961 Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist, was running weather simulations on a basic computer of the time. He was rerunning a simulation and, to save time, rounded down one of the input variables. To his astonishment this one tiny change produced an entirely different end result in the simulation. This was all the more remarkable as the change he made was to enter 0.506 instead of 0.506127.
Lorenz had discovered that complex systems — like weather systems, economies, or organisations — are highly-sensitive to changes in initial conditions. If there is even one small difference in starting conditions the end result can be vastly different. And, if you’ve ever tried to copy a so-called ‘best practices’, imitate what a supposedly great leader does, or adopt the same organisational structure of a leading business you’ll have noticed that you get a completely different result to the one you were expecting (or were sold).
The reason you can not deliver success by copying someone else who was successful is because you have different starting conditions — you’re doing this at a different time, (possibly) in a different country, with different people who are operating in a different environment with different competitors and different customers. If Lorenz’s weather simulation generated a completely different result because he rounded down three decimal places on a single input what did you think your entirely different conditions are going to do to your plans?
The reason Lorenz’s insight into the ‘sensitivity of initial conditions’ in complex systems like economies or organisations became known as the ‘butterfly effect’ was due to the model he created to show this effect in action. If you search online for a ‘Lorenz attractor’ you will find an image like the one attached to this blog with a ball looping around a shape that looks a bit like a butterfly. And suddenly the ball veers off into new patterns because of imperceptibly tiny changes.
So what does this mean for us today?
The challenge is that many organisations today simply copy or imitate those who appear successful. Yet our different conditions mean we won’t generate the same results as them. Therefore we blame people (“our people aren’t good enough — we need a Cultural Transformation”) blame the way we do things (“our processes aren’t good enough — we need an Agile Transformation”) or blame past investments (“our systems aren’t good enough — we need a Digital Transformation!”). But “transformations” are merely attempts to copy the latest fad and, in a world of unrelenting and seismic changes, there are no ‘best practices’ even if we could copy them.
So what then must we do?
The answer is to focus more rigorously on what’s being considered:
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- Who are are trying to solve it for?
- What do they want?
Given this focus a small team with a bit of diversity of skills (ex, client facing, operational focused and technologically savvy staff) can quickly map out the current situation, understand how its changing and identify moves the organisation can make to start shaping conditions to their advantage. They can also show their map to others and invite them to ‘challenge their assumptions’ (NB: — this was the subject of my last post) in order learn what they can do better and how to execute faster than rivals who are still focused on ‘trying to be like Elon’ or ‘making their organisation like Spotify’.
If you’d like to test out for yourself how maps can instantly improve your ability to understands what’s being considered get in touch with me with your answers to the three questions above. I’ll use AI to map out this situation and we can jump on a call to customise this to your local conditions. After that I’ll be able to give you some unique insights into your problem and what you can do about it that you can challenge and learn from. Best of all, you won’t have to pay a penny for this (though obviously, time is limited so this is a first come first served offer).
This principle — understand what is being considered —is part of the Wardley Mapping method for helping organisations communicate more clearly, develop effective teams, improve operations, accelerate learning, lead more decisively and structure themselves to deliver better results. To learn more get in touch with me at email@example.com or visit powermaps.net.