Anything Becomes Possible: The Butterfly Effect and Living Systems

By Devin Vodicka

The mechanistic view focuses on optimization of the parts with the idea that if each of the parts is better understood and improved the overall system will improve.  This approach became popular in organizational management in the early 1900s, largely driven by the influence of Frederick Winslow Taylor and his “Scientific Management” model.  Taylor took the principles from his experience as a mechanical engineer and applied them with a relentless focus on worker efficiency.  While there were humanistic elements of his concepts, including a focus on cooperation between workers and management, the legacy of his influence largely is on his principles with became simply known as “Taylorism.”

Taylor’s four principles are as follows:

  1. Replace working by “rule of thumb,” or simple habit and common sense, and instead use the scientific method to study work and determine the most efficient way to perform specific tasks.
  2. Rather than simply assign workers to just any job, match workers to their jobs based on capability and motivation, and train them to work at maximum efficiency.
  3. Monitor worker performance, and provide instructions and supervision to ensure that they’re using the most efficient ways of working.
  4. Allocate the work between managers and workers so that the managers spend their time planning and training, allowing the workers to perform their tasks efficiently.

Taylor’s work contributed significantly to a culture of management that was oriented to improvements through studying and codifying ways to be more efficient and then providing direction and monitoring to improve efficiency.  This approach is very effective when workers are being asked to complete tasks that are highly repeatable and specialized, both of which are hallmarks of the industrial-era assembly line systems.  

In contrast, living systems are characterized by dynamic interactions between diverse agents and the webs of interconnection create feedback loops that can be both stabilizing and unpredictable.  In this type of system, repeatability and specialization are not the defining features.  Instead, it is the interactions within the system that lead to network characteristics.  

Therefore the principles of “scientific management” are misaligned with the realities of living systems.  Leaders who understand this distinction shift their attention away from directives, which presume that the problem and solution have already been identified, studied, and codified into a repeatable model. Leaders who understand living systems focus their energy to influencing relationships. 

Photo by Pixabay on

I remember being struck by the story of Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who discovered the “Butterfly Effect” by running a series of experiments running simulations of weather patterns on a computer system.  He found that very small changes in his data led to dramatically different results over time, a phenomenon also known as “Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions.” Lorenz’ discovery emphasized the importance of feedback over time and the ways in which feedback loops are influenced by one another in profound and often unexpected ways.  

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” – Edward Lorenz

Understanding the Butterfly Effect

Weather systems are complicated but they are also not living systems.  When we think of the beauty and dynamism of weather patterns and then imagine interjecting agency into that system we begin to see that living systems are unbelievably full of potential and possibilities.  Further, when we reflect on the idea that very small differences can create dramatically different outcomes, we begin to recognize that we can influence living systems and the extended web of relationships through each and every interaction that we have.  Leadership, when viewed through the paradigm of living systems, is exhibited in the ways in which we listen, connect, and share with one another. 

The foundation of these relationships is relational trust that arises through consistency, compassion, competence, and communication.  Where relational trust exists, we can generate social capital that creates opportunity for exchange of resources and expertise. Validating the research on trust, high levels of social capital are also associated with organizational effectiveness, including educational studies such as this study by Leana and Pil: “Results indicate that both internal social capital (relations among teachers) and external social capital (relations between the principal and external stakeholders) predict student achievement in mathematics and reading.” 

Promoting high levels of relational trust and social capital does not require a title or any formal authority.  It simply requires a willingness to treat one another with dignity and respect.  It requires us to follow through on our commitments and to create the conditions where we feel safe to be vulnerable.  It requires us to be empathetic and compassionate with one another.  It requires us to listen deeply so that we develop meaningful understanding.  We must express our ideas with an awareness of our context which arises through the process of noticing, listening, and wondering.  

When we come together authentically and in the spirit of service to one another, anything becomes possible.  When we are connected with one another, the “flapping of our wings” takes on additional meaning.  Through our relationships, we can transcend the limitations of the mechanistic mindset, becoming infinitely creative through generative combinations and recombinations of the potential that inherently emerges through the exercise of our agency. 

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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