Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Butterfly Effect

Have you ever touched a butterfly or moth and ended up with shimmering powder, like iridescent fairy-dust on your fingers? Even when trying to help (such as when attempting to get them away from fluttering against a window pane to return to the garden), it is easy to damage them – partially because they do not understand what you are trying to do and hence are not cooperative.  When I was a child my mother and my father, although it was harder for him as he wore glasses, used to give me "butterfly kisses", which involved softly stroking my cheek with their eyelashes - the most important aspect of a butterfly kiss was that it was gentle.  There are many similarities between butterflies and business.  When you are trying to introduce change it is best to handle people with care, unless you want to hurt them and hence reduce their ability to operate effectively in the future.  Clear and honest communication is often the best way to gain trust and support from employees for a new plan.  Unlike a helpless insect, if you explain your intentions and the desired outcome, people are capable of understanding the vision and working with you to achieve it. 

Adonis Blue, rare UK butterfly

There is nothing wrong with ensuring that you present an attractive end result to promote participation – a bit like growing suitable plants or placing food out to encourage butterflies into your garden. As it is with people, so it is with Lepidoptera – different things appeal to different types (it would be a dull and very competitive world if we all only liked the same things).  Some butterflies and moths are attracted to carrion, just as some people like working in an environment where they are not forced to curb their worst behaviours (this is currently a hot topic in the media and on some blogs where HR has been blamed or defended for not curbing bankers’ excesses for example see ) others are drawn towards particular flowers or fruit.  If you want a wide variety of skills and diversity in your business you must make individuals aware of the benefits that are most appealing to them:

  • some employees want to develop skills;
  • some value having a great community to work with;
  • some desire a career path; and
  • some simply want a secure and supportive place of work that rewards them appropriately for their contribution. 

The latter is a more general need amongst employees (who doesn’t want to feel valued and to have a good place in which to work?), but increasingly people want a work-life balance too. 

I can’t tell you exactly what you need to do to do to make your workplace attractive to the people you require, but, if you like butterflies, there are some types of feed that seem to have a universal appeal – a good recipe that attracts a wide range of butterflies is:

2 cans of beer,
1 pound (500 g) of sugar,
3 mashed overripe bananas,
1 shot of rum,
230 ml (circa 16 tablespoons) of syrup
230 ml fruit juice

Mix the ingredients well.   Place in shallow dishes around your garden or paint the mixture onto tree trunks, fencing, stones or (if you don’t have a garden) place in a bowl on your window ledge (but be warned, wasps like too).
A butterfly’s wing under a microscope is even more astonishing than it appears when glimpsed as part of the insect resting on a flower.   As you can see from the photograph below, the wing is covered in overlapping scales made of chitin (the material that often constitutes the outer skeleton of insects).  Like employees, each scale is different and yet, all these independent pieces, working together in an orderly fashion, create an efficient wing to carry the butterfly forward on its journey.  Just because people are different it does not mean that they cannot work well together with a shared sense of purpose.

Butterfly wing magnified 5,300 times

Earlier this week I attended the Strategic HR Network’s International HR Conference.  There were some excellent speakers covering a range of topics from HR strategy and capability to cross-border leadership.  The value of diversity was a common theme, as was the need to adapt in order to connect with employees around the globe.  Some fascinating data was shared, some of which surprised me, for example according to research by a leading firm of consultants, Japanese workers hold process in high regard (and are often shocked at the apparently disorganised manner in which their American or Northern European colleagues approach and complete tasks) however, they are less keen on individual job descriptions as culturally people are expected to step up to do what they see needs to be done rather than being constrained – the Swiss in contrast like to know clearly what is expected of them.  One of the thoughts that stuck with me since Tuesday is a phrase that was made in the opening key note about employees “wanting a career lattice instead of a ladder”.  I first came across this phrase two years ago in the book written by Cathy Benko, the Chief Talent Officer at Deloitte, and Molly Andersen, a former Deloitte colleague and organisational effectiveness expert, “The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance In The Changing World of Work” .  According to the US National Bureau of Economic Research, companies have 25% fewer organisational layers than they had 20 years ago – as a result there are less opportunities for employees to move upwards, combined with this more people want a choice in what they do and may opt for a role that provides them with desired flexibility rather than seeking upward promotion.  The current economic strain on companies, combined with enhanced technologies and available data, is resulting increasingly in organisations collaborating with what were formerly perceived as competitors.  Workers often are retained for a specific project and are then expected to move on rather than anticipating or wanting a “career for life”.  We are living in an exciting era of change and businesses will need to do more than simply make cultural adaptations to ensure success going forwards.  It might amuse you to note that the scales of a butterfly’s wings are made of a lattice with interconnecting strands.

Butterfly wing scale magnified 14,000 times

Most of us are familiar with the “Butterfly Effect” in Chaos Theory – i.e. where a small change in one place can have a huge impact on a wider environment.  The effect was initially defined in 1961 by Edward Lorenz (although he referred to a seagull rather than a butterfly flapping its wings, and only changed to butterflies later as they provided a more attractive image.)  The phrase refers to the idea that the creature’s wings can make minute changes in the atmosphere that could ultimately alter the path or even the existence of a tornado.  Lopez himself was trying to predict weather by using a computer model to rerun forecasts and determine likely outcomes.  He entered the decimal .506 instead of entering .506127 and the result produced by the computer was a completely different weather scenario.  It is hard to predict outcomes at work as even small fluctuations in employee behaviour can make huge differences.  However, as information continues to be disseminated at ever increasing speeds and social media maintains its growing impact on the workplace, I am happy to predict that the people outside an organisation’s immediate employment will have to be taken increasingly into account.

Mathematical illustration of Butterfly Effect - A plot of the Lorenz attractor for values r = 28σ = 10,b = 8/3
By way of an example, I shall end with a story told at the conference about the launch of a new product – instead of spending millions on marketing, the product was given to a leading blogger, whose opinion was seen as influential across the industry, so that he could trial the product and comment on his blog.  He was not an employee, the business had no editorial rights over his comments and he received no remuneration (other than the kudos of being the first person to be able to sample the product and tell the world what he thought of it).  His comments were spread virally, he liked it and the product achieved huge sales.  This type of viral marketing, using social media, is known as Butterfly Marketing.  On the other hand, when BIC launched a biro specifically aimed at the female market there was widespread outcry across the web ( ) and the adverse public comments have had an impact on sales.  The world in which we work and live is adapting, as we become increasingly networked; small things will make big changes for all of us, like letting butterflies loose, there is little control once the lid of the box has been raised.

Migrating Monarch butterflies

Given the theme of this post, it seems apt to end with the very 1970's video, The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast, inspired by Alan Aldridge and William Plomer's book of the same name. 

The book won the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year Award when it was released in 1973 and the video became a surprising global hit.

(Roger Glover, The Butterfly Ball and The Grasshopper's Feast - Love is All, 1974)

"Come one and all to the Butterfly Ball...."

PS The original poem, written by William Roscoe in 1807, inspired the above, it is as follows:

The Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast

Come take up your Hats, and away let us haste
To the Butterfly's Ball, and the Grasshopper's Feast.
The Trumpeter, Gad-fly, has summon'd the Crew,
And the Revels are now only waiting for you.

So said little Robert, and pacing along,
His merry Companions came forth in a Throng.
And on the smooth Grass, by the side of a Wood,
Beneath a broad Oak that for Ages had stood,

Saw the Children of Earth, and the Tenants of Air,
For an Evening's Amusement together repair.
And there came the Beetle, so blind and so black,
Who carried the Emmet, his Friend, on his Back.

And there was the Gnat and the Dragon-fly too,
With all their Relations, Green, Orange, and Blue.
And there came the Moth, with his Plumage of Down,
And the Hornet in Jacket of Yellow and Brown;

Who with him the Wasp, his Companion, did bring,
But they promis'd, that Evening, to lay by their Sting.
And the sly little Dormouse crept out of his Hole,
And brought to the Feast his blind Brother, the Mole.

And the Snail, with his Horns peeping out of his Shell,
Came from a great Distance, the Length of an Ell.
A Mushroom their Table, and on it was laid
A Water-dock Leaf, which a Table-cloth made.

The Viands were various, to each of their Taste,
And the Bee brought her Honey to crown the Repast.
Then close on his Haunches, so solemn and wise,
The Frog from a Corner, look'd up to the Skies.

And the Squirrel well pleas'd such Diversions to see,
Mounted high over Head, and look'd down from a Tree.
Then out came the Spider, with Finger so fine,
To shew his Dexterity on the tight Line.

From one Branch to another, his Cobwebs he slung,
Then quick as an Arrow he darted along,
But just in the Middle, -- Oh! shocking to tell,
From his Rope, in an Instant, poor Harlequin fell.

Yet he touch'd not the Ground, but with Talons outspread,
Hung suspended in Air, at the End of a Thread,
Then the Grasshopper came with a Jerk and a Spring,
Very long was his Leg, though but short was his Wing;

He took but three Leaps, and was soon out of Sight,
Then chirp'd his own Praises the rest of the Night.
With Step so majestic the Snail did advance,
And promis'd the Gazers a Minuet to dance.

But they all laugh'd so loud that he pull'd in his Head,
And went in his own little Chamber to Bed.
Then, as Evening gave Way to the Shadows of Night,
Their Watchman, the Glow-worm, came out with a Light.

Then Home let us hasten, while yet we can see,
For no Watchman is waiting for you and for me.
So said little Robert, and pacing along,
His merry Companions returned in a Throng. 
Book plate from 1860 edition of the William Roscoe poem

1 comment:

  1. Love this blog, Kate - you weave a rich tapestry that both educates and illuminates.