Improvement: The Butterfly Effect

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

Can small changes really make a difference? If I rely on tiny changes to get me to my productivity goal, won’t I have to wait forever to see progress?

Consider the story of the work of MIT mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz, told so compellingly in James Gleick’s book Chaos – Making a New Science. In the early 1960’s Lorenz was running mathematical experiments on a primitive computer. The experiments aimed to simulate and ultimately to forecast weather patterns. He sought a model that might make weather predictions as accurate as forecasting high and low tides, or the return of comets.

At one point Lorenz wanted to re-examine a portion of his model, so rather than starting the entire cumbersome process from the beginning, he started in the middle. When he returned to his printouts a short time later, he found that the model had not repeated its results. To his shock (because even a primitive computer was still causal!) he found that the pattern run the second time quickly wobbled, diverged and soon bore no resemblance to the original hypothetical weather pattern.

It dawned on Lorenz that his computer stored six decimal places, .506127, while his printouts showed data to the third decimal place, .506. Though the difference represented less than one part per thousand, considered highly accurate in meteorological work, it was enough to send the two versions of the model onto completely different tracks.

Tiny changes multiply in their effects. The image used in Lorenz’ early paper on his unexpected discovery is that the beating of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can yield a tornado in Texas, now referred to as “the Butterfly Effect.”

There may be times when the grand gesture is called for, when nothing less than a massive change will achieve the result. But there are many occasions when the kaizen approach will help us to avoid the defenses erected by our fearful animal brains and achieve dramatic difference with tiny inputs.

Name your goal, then name your first small step. What would you like to achieve, if you knew it could be accomplished by tiny steps? Record your plans by leaving a comment here.

(For an homage to Edward Lorenz, see Chris Crouch’s blog, here.)


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