What is the butterfly effect?
The term butterfly effect was first coined by Edward Norton Lorenz (23 May 1917 – 16 April 2008).
Lorenz was an American mathematician and meteorologist and a pioneer of chaos theory.
The butterfly effect, according to Wikepedia is:
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependency on initial conditions in which a small change at one place in a deterministic in a nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.
Sounds complicated but the key message is this.
A small change can have a big effect.
I became fascinated with chaos and complexity theory in my doctoral studies — in fact, one of my supervisors was a Russian Chaos Mathematician.
Implications for leaders
Leaders by the very fact that they are in position of power and responsibility can have a big impact on the people around them.
But astute leaders can and should use this impact selectively.
And in my experience an underrated way of doing this is my small actions.
This is in contrast to the big gestures, vision and actions we typically think of when we talk about leadership.
Here are some suggestions for a range of small leadership actions that can have a big (butterfly like) Impact:
– Remembering people’s names
– A word of praise for a job well done.
– Welcoming new employees
– What a leader wears
– The questions a leader asks
– A simple word of thanks
– The hours a leader keeps and how they spend their time, with whom
All these leadership actions are small.
Yet can have a big effect on others.
A small leadership action at American Express
For 6 years I worked at American Express and at one stage I held a senior marketing position.
The CEO constantly talked about the importance of customer service.
I heard it but like many others didn’t really get it.
The CEO then instructed that a monitor be placed in his office of how long customers were waiting on the phone before being answered.
It was a small gesture.
But it had a big impact.
If you met him in his office and the waiting time went above 60 seconds the meeting was stopped until he had investigated the problem.
This small leadership action had a profound impact.
I finally got it.
It was through his actions and his attention to a small metric indicated that he was deadly serious about a bigger issue — making the customer service standards world class.
This small changes – big impact approach is what I am advocating with innovation.
Small wins — add up.
They can make a big difference to customers, employees and shareholders.