Sunday, September 26, 2010

Leading from the Middle -Part 2 - The Butterfly Effect

I’m often intrigued by the idea of weather, imagining what it must have been like before radar and satellites. Now, we watch hurricanes form off the coast of Africa and we can follow their route across the Atlantic to our front door off the Gulf of Mexico. As we see the storms move into the Midwest, we have at least a marginal understanding of where our weather comes from. But 100 years ago, probably even less, the storms had no such history. Probably a weather-knowledgeable person understood that the changes in humidity or the clouds heralded a storm in the near future, but I doubt many people thought of the storm starting in Africa.

We now have some understanding of the way in which something as far away as Africa can have an impact on us. We act as if we understand it when we toss around the phrase ‘the butterfly effect’ as a shorthand way to express the idea that a small change on the other side of the world can impact our lives. But I wonder how often we bring that concept into our day-to-day lives of our organizations. I’m not sure we think about it very often and, I suspect, we consciously act on it even more rarely. Within our organizations, little behaviors and actions can have as much impact as the major policies and those little behaviors and actions come from each one of us.

In her book, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, author Margaret Wheatley writes about this idea saying that organizations have self-similar behaviors that are exhibited by all of the people in an organization no matter what their position or work might be.

“These recurring patterns of behavior are what many call the culture of the organization…. By observing the behavior of a production floor employee or a senior executive you can tell what the organizations values and how it chooses to do its work. You hear the values referred to even in causal conversation…. [This similarity] is achieved not through compliance to an exhausting set of standards and rules, but from a few simple principles that everyone is accountable for, operating in a condition of individual freedom.”

If it is this repetition of behaviors that creates the culture of the organization, then the way to change the culture is to start changing behaviors. At various times in different organizations, I’ve worked with staff members to find ways to improve the way we work together. After working at it awhile and seeing some change, people begin to like it and wish the entire organization was working on the same challenges. My response to them is always the same, we can only work on our own behavior and interactions, but I believe that the changes we make, if they are good ones, will begin to exert influence beyond our part of the organization. And I’ve found that to be true. So if you think your organizational culture is negative, first look at what you’re doing to support that negativity and stop doing it. Second, identify more positive behaviors you can begin to exhibit, start doing those and watch what happens. It may take a while, but don’t get discouraged. If that little butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong can start a tropical storm in Africa that then dumps rain on Texas, surely we can have an impact on the organizations we lead.

Good luck,


No comments:

Post a Comment