Expressed metaphorically as “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas”, in Chaos Theory the “butterfly effect” is a hypothesis rooted in Edward N Lorenz’s work on weather forecasting and used to depict the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in nonlinear processes, systems in which the change in input is not proportional to the change in output.
Even if overstated, the flapping of wings advances the idea that a small change (the flap of wings) in the initial conditions of a system cascades to a large-scale chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena (the tornado) . The chain of events is known as the domino effect and represents the cumulative effect produced when one event sets off a chain of similar events. If the butterfly metaphor doesn’t catch up maybe it’s easier to visualize the impact as a big surfing wave — it starts small and increases in size to the degree that it can bring a boat to the shore or make an armada drown under its force.
Projects start as narrow activities however the longer they take and the broader they become tend to accumulate force and behave like a wave, having the force to push or drawn an organization in the flood that comes with it. A project is not only a system but a complex ecosystem — aggregations of living organisms and nonliving components with complex interactions forming a unified whole with emergent behavior deriving from the structure rather than its components — groups of people tend to self-organize, to swarm in one direction or another, much like birds do, while knowledge seems to converge from unrelated sources (aka consilience).
Quite often ignored, the context in which a project starts is very important, especially because these initial factors or conditions can have a considerable impact reflected in people’s perception regarding the state or outcomes of the project, perception reflected eventually also in the decisions made during the later phases of the project. The positive or negative auspices can be easily reinforced by similar events. Given the complex correlations and implications, aspects not always correct perceived and understood can have a domino effect.
The preparations for the project start — the Business Case, setting up the project structure, communicating project’s expectation and addressing stakeholders’ expectations, the kick-off meeting, the approval of the needed resources, the knowledge available in the team, all these have a certain influence on the project. A bad start can haunt a project long time after its start, even if the project is on the right track and makes a positive impact. In reverse, a good start can shade away some mishaps on the way, however there’s also the danger that the mishaps are ignored and have greater negative impact on the project. It may look as common sense however the first image often counts and is kept in people’s memory for a long time.
As people are higher perceptive to negative as to positive events, there are higher the chances that a multitude of negative aspects will have bigger impact on the project. It’s again something that one can address as the project progresses. It’s not necessarily about control but about being receptive to the messages around and of allowing people to give (constructive) feedback early in the project. It’s about using the positive force of a wave and turning negative flow into a positive one.
Being aware of the importance of the initial context is just a first step toward harnessing waves or winds’ power, it takes action and leadership to pull the project in the right direction.
® Originally published on sql-troubles