Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Butterfly Effect

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Is the Butterfly Effect the antidote to the Broken Windows Theory?

Last week, I wrote about the Broken Windows Theory; in effect, it means that an environment that is not maintained (hence, filled with minor crimes, like broken windows) sends a signal that it is not monitored, which, in turn, leads to the occurrence of larger offenses or issues because no one is watching.

I started thinking about how to stop that chain of events that occurs, specifically about one of the lessons I listed: Fix the small things before they become big things. And then I remembered the Butterfly Effect. What is it? I won't bore you with the history or the theory or the concerns over cause-and-effect or predictability, but I'll get to the heart of the matter: a small change or a small action at one point can lead to larger changes down the line.

"It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly's wings can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world." -Chaos Theory

Maybe they are both theories on the same side of the coin, or maybe the Butterfly Effect is the antidote to Broken Windows.

When I shared my Broken Windows post on Google+, Dan Oestreich commented:

Years ago, when I worked in an HR Department, we started from a lot of "broken windows" in the systems and processes that were being used. As a consequence, there were many people trying to get around these systems, generate one-off solutions to complicated compensation and selection questions, and generally display a lot of hostility and disrespect for the function. 

Luckily, some very good managers were hired who understood the principle clearly. We started with little stuff, clearing up the application process, making life easier and more consistent for managers, collaborating with employees on setting new policies -- essentially repairing those windows one at a time. And how-about-that, pretty soon the efforts to subvert the system dissipated. No more last-minute attempts by managers to fire somebody late Friday or efforts to pay someone inequitably because they'd become a favorite. Broken Windows Theory applies in many interesting ways!

I think his solution to Broken Windows exemplifies the Butterfly Effect. Fixing the little things kept the big things from happening. Fixing the little things showed that neither the little things nor the bigger things are acceptable. More importantly, hiring some good managers led to decisions and actions that resulted in future improvements.

My response:

One of my next posts is on the Butterfly Effect, and I think it's what you describe and an excellent way to fix the windows. Start small, let others see how those small things can make a big difference, which helps to create buy-in, and as a result, starts to get everyone excited about doing things to improve processes, etc.

The interesting thing about the Butterfly Effect, too, is that there is a component of it that refers to going back in time to change or correct something so that, in modern times, it is no longer an issue. Well, Marty McFly, since we don't have any time machines, perhaps we can just figure out how to fix things now so that they don't continue into the future.

What's a good place to start? I think it depends on the issue(s). Regardless of the issue, though, there are some fundamentals we can work from:
  • Strong, honest, transparent, and trustworthy leadership is necessary.
  • Hire the right people. Put the right people in place. Look at Dan's story. It took the right people to effect change in that organization.
  • Hiring is important but so is the onboarding process.
  • Create employee and customer journey maps.
  • And just as important, create process maps. Understand the underlying processes, rules, policies, systems - anything else that could contribute to the root cause.
  • Since I've mentioned it, root cause analysis is a must.
  • Get your facts straight. Listen to employees and customers. In order to do that, you must make sure your VOC program is designed and executed on properly.
Those are all big things, but when the foundation is solid, it's easier to identify those things that can have a greater impact down the line or in the future.

The list could go on and on, but you start to see how one thing leads to another leads to another. You can start to see how the Butterfly Effect applies just in the fundamentals. For example, by hiring the right person today, you could avert a customer experience disaster tomorrow. It's really pretty powerful stuff and makes you sit back a moment and think: What am I doing today that will have a negative or positive impact on my business in the future?

Each smallest act of kindness reverberates across great distances and spans of time, affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo. Because kindness is passed on and grows each time it’s passed until a simple courtesy becomes an act of selfless courage, years later, and far away. Likewise, each small meanness, each expression of hatred, each act of evil. -Dean Koontz, From the Corner of His Eye


  1. Hi Annette

    Your list is spot on. This is exactly what I found in practice when I took on a customer services department and started to address customer attrition. But it took 3 years of trying (seemingly) all the fashionable customer experience initiatives before we worked out a much simpler way.

    I'd just add that 'executing properly' on VoC means dealing with EVERY customer issue immediately. Which is NOT how most people do it. So, instead of insights, analysis and powerpoints - pick up the phone! (And do the root cause analysis AFTER you've saved the customer). We found that dealing with every bit of feedback can be done, and it does make a dramatic difference to retention and referrals.

    Thanks for a great post.

    1. Guy, thanks for reading and for your comment. I'm glad you figured out a simpler way!

      You're absolutely right... executing properly, per your definition, is so vital.

      From a B2B perspective, I might suggest that root cause analysis must be done in conjunction with saving the customer: letting them that you're going to fix the issue at the source is important, and in my experience, they actually want to know the root cause and what solutions are in place to keep it from happening again, with assurances.

      Some B2C customers may like that, too, but I think they are more often about "just fix it."

      Annette :-)

  2. Hi Annette,
    I'm an advocate of smaller changes leading to bigger things so I like your Butterfly Effect theory. However, my concern is that your list, as you concede in the post, is full of 'big things'. Therefore, do you have a view on what are some of the 'smaller' things that a firm can to get started and generate momentum?


    1. Adrian,

      I think all the big things are made up of small things. Or, a better way to say it is, if we outline the little things to get us to those big things, we are miles ahead.

      Let's take one, for example: hiring the right people. What if we did the 5 Whys or the 5 Whats. What does "right" mean? Drill down on that until we get to the root cause or root of the strategy, and start there. So, for example, do we need to revamp our job descriptions? our hiring process? our culture? our messaging? how we live the brand? Oh dear... there I go listing big things again. I think drilling down to the root is key.

      Having said that, here's a better example: how about if we start with a "kill stupid rules" or "kill stupid policies" exercise: an exercise to list rules and policies and their impact on the customer or on the business could get you started.


      Annette :-)

  3. That is a great point Annette

    I heard a lovely quote the other day

    It is the start that stops most people ~ Don Shula

    Maybe that is the root cause of the problem.


    1. James, thanks, I love that quote! I think you're on to something.

      Annette :-)