I once worked on project at a huge consumer products company that was contemplating a major upgrade of the computer systems used for accepting, processing, and fulfilling customer orders. It was to be a very large multi-million dollar undertaking, and I was on a team tasked with coming up with a plan and estimate for the costs and resources needed to make it happen.
After weeks of work, we presented our plan to the Chief Financial Officer, whose department was to be responsible for the project. He and his lieutenants listened carefully to the presentation and asked several good questions. But at the end, he was hesitant to approve the plan.
“I don’t know . . . “, he said with a sigh. “Three years is a long time . . . I think we need to either scale it back a bit or find a way to generate value and benefits sooner. See if you can rework this and get back to me. “
We walked out of the room and back to our work location, where one of the client managers stopped the partner (my boss) and asked, “How did it go?”
“He wants us to rethink the plan to try to realize the benefits quicker”, was the response.
“Oh my!” said the manager with a worried wrinkle of the brow.
At the time, I thought nothing of it, but the next day in the cafeteria, a client executive came up to me and said, “I hear Rick blew up at your presentation! Now what are we going to do?”
“Huh?” I answered. “He just said he wants us to rework the plan.”
“That’s not what I heard,” was the reply. In the days that followed, various third parties testified confidently that the CFO had been “livid”, or “red with anger”, and that he “threw the team out of his office.” One person declared flatly that “heads would roll”.
Over the years, I have seen this countless times in a variety of situations both in and out of the business world. My colleagues and I came to call this “the butterfly effect”. The term was originally coined by a mathematician named Edward Lorenz to describe how big effects can start from very small stimuli (“A gale wind in Europe can be the result of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil”). We appropriated and redefined it for our purposes.
This phenomenon manifests itself in many ways. I recall hearing the office managing partner complementing a colleague for the “nice binding job” on a proposal. Within days, “cerlox” binding machines sprouted up all around the office and every paper report of any size was carefully bound with a hard cover and a plastic spine.
In the 1990’s, the Phillies baseball team had a number of “characters” who were often seen in local establishments enjoying life. One day, I picked up the newspaper and read about a “massive scuffle” and “shouting match” between some players and patrons at a bar where I had been the night before. There had indeed been plenty of loud talk and laughter that night, but I can assure you that there was no “scuffle” of any kind. And the players were gone by 8pm.
In the case of the consumer products client, we reworked the plan to break it into smaller chunks, and it was approved at the next presentation. No heads rolled. So the next time you hear about a “knock down drag out fight” between a movie star couple, or a “pitched battle” between the White House and the State Department (both of which I have seen in the last few weeks) don’t believe it. It is probably just a butterfly flapping its wings.