How to Leverage the Butterfly Effect

To understand the information flow of a complex business environment, look no further than the mighty butterfly. And to do that, we should consult Dr. Ian Malcolm.

“The shorthand is the Butterfly Effect,” says Jeff Goldblum’s Malcolm in the oh-so ’90s classic blockbuster, Jurassic Park. “A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.”

(“Eat your heart out, velociraptors!” Butterfly drops the mic.)

The concept of the Butterfly Effect can seem complicated, but it is actually fairly straightforward (and it was actually the brainchild of American mathematician Edward Lorenz). In complex systems—such as an island full of genetically reanimated dinosaurs; or perhaps a modern workplace, if you want to use a more realistic scenario—even the smallest actions can have terrific outcomes. Every piece of the system is connected in such a way that no action occurs without consequence. For the butterfly, he flaps his wings, which changes the course of a weather pattern, which continues to alter other weather patterns; and in the end, the insignificant flapping of wings has brewed a storm on the other side of the world.

For the non-butterfly worker, almost everything he does ripples throughout the business. Even the things he thinks are insignificant have the potential to touch everyone around him. Actions have consequence; reactions create new actions; and every piece of the system can be equally effecting and affected. Unlike the butterfly, the shift from small actions to large outcomes needs to be nurtured a little.

Consider, for example, a recent situation I encountered with a client. This particular client’s entire job centered on creating spreadsheets. That’s all he did, and he thought no one noticed nor cared. He assumed that only the people in his immediate periphery paid any attention to his work. In reality—and unbeknownst to him—many people were paying attention. In fact, those spreadsheets he thought were so insignificant were being converted into graphics that went out across a team site for the entire department. What’s more, everyone loved them.

If somebody didn’t have the foresight to take his spreadsheets and share them with a wider audience, he might have been right and very few people would have known or cared what he was doing. By bringing his work into the open, he was able to have a greater impact on the company.

It seems that many people keep their work to themselves, and then wonder why they’re not getting noticed. A search of the phrase “how to make an impact at work” turns up 25,600 hits, which leads me to believe there’s plenty of interest in the subject. This, of course, makes sense, because the more impact you have, the more dependency you create; the greater the dependency, the more valuable you become.

But it’s silly to think that we need to read an article or blog post to find the secret to having that impact (other articles, I mean; definitely keep reading this one). Really, the only way to not have any impact is to not show up. So Step 1 is pretty simple: Just show up and do your job. But in order to amplify that impact, Step 2 is to share what you do.

The prospect of putting yourself and your work out in the open is understandably difficult for many people. You have to trust that your colleagues will be supportive, and you have to trust that your openness will be rewarded.

However, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that workers who were overly pessimistic and unable to form trusting relationships made about $3,000 less per year, on average, than their optimistic, trustworthy counterparts, according to Quartz.

In order to form that trust, workers need an environment that encourages them to be open, which often isn’t the case. One employee survey conducted by New Norms @Work, found that just 16% said they feel more comfortable sharing their opinions on industry matters through social networking sites.

It’s safe to say that in many workplaces employees limit their impact by keeping their work private. In essence, the metaphorical workplace butterfly is flapping his wings in a vacuum and getting nowhere. Granted, work gets done, quotas get met, and the company probably gets by just fine. But in a world that is constantly changing, isn’t it also necessary to change how we work? Consider that in the tech industry, the median age of employees is 30 or younger. This is a group of people who are accustomed to sharing their work in connected social environments, and their ideas are likely valuable to company growth. It was this type of thinking that led former General Electric chairman and CEO Jack Welch to push 500 top-level executives to engage with younger employees and learn how to use the Internet in the late ’90s.

The workplace is a system, much like any other. And like any system, evolution often begins with small, incremental changes that transform into something far greater.