Flapping Wings

The sad news of devastation by Hurricane Harvey and Irma brought a popular maxim to mind – Flapping butterfly wings in Brazil can create a tornado in Texas. This is also known as the butterfly effect, which simply states that small changes can have disproportionately larger effects. It is a subset of the chaos theory.

What is chaos? Chaos is when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future – Edward Lorenz was a genius.

In the cases of Harvey and Irma, the flapping butterfly wings were off the coast of Cape Verde. This article is not about the weather or climate change, but about the effect of approximations and its sister – assumptions.

A hypothetical drug is said to have led to no fatal side effects in 99.99% of test cases during clinical trials. A smooth talker can approximate this to no fatal side effects in 100% of test cases. The 0.01% of test cases might not matter based on the sample size, but it matters when you scale to reality. The World’s population as at Wednesday September 13, 2017 08:52 am was 7,532,041,007 (http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/). 0.01% of that population is 753,204 people. This is larger than the population of 68 different countries. Imagine a drug with fatal side effects on all the people of Luxembourg, Montenegro or Malta. It will trigger outrage and some will stretch it to links with racial/ethnic cleansing. Approximations are dangerous when dealing with people.

On December 17, 2010, a 26-year-old fruit vendor in Tunisia was preparing his wares for sale in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi (locally known as Basboosa) did not have a permit to sell in that area and was unwilling to give a bribe. When confronted by the police to clear up his wares and leave, he refused and was allegedly molested by them, with his wares seized. Basboosa was the breadwinner of his family. Irked by the public embarrassment and the confiscation of his wares, he proceeded to engage the Governor for the return of his wares. The Governor declined granting him audience. Basboosa set himself on fire and created an audience. The audience spanned more than 12 countries and removed at least 3 “leaders” of countries, with some still in progress. That self-immolation was a flapping wing. Flapping wings are not leverage, they are unpredictable triggers with unpredictable impact.

Individuals in organizations replace approximations with assumptions and sometimes, assumptions are based on experience – we have seen this happen before, no need to ask questions, no need to listen to the people, no need to walk to the problem and use the 5 senses, just apply what has worked before. Usually, that is when the butterfly flaps its wings. Because when experience fails, it digs in, shares blame, people lose confidence, and answers get scared of questions. Ultimately, creating rich grazing for external consultants, business books and MBA case studies. What started as a blameless assumption can bring an organization to its knees.

Leaders in organizations must be connected to the present, keenly observe changes, evaluate impact on the vision and adapt tactics accordingly. That is of course assuming the vision is not chaos, which in itself is not undesirable.

Chaos explains why no one, but the one present, can determine the future.

– Osasu Oviawe

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