The complexity metaphor, sensitive dependence on initial conditions, often referred to as the butterfly effect, stresses the significant influence of the initial conditions and small perturbations on shaping the overall emergence of a complex system. This metaphor originates from research into weather patterns. In 1961, mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz discovered that just one small change to the set of numbers he typed into his weather-producing computer program – he rounded off .506127 to .506 – caused his computer weather system to produce patterns that grew further and further apart. He was surprised to find that a difference of only one part in a thousand resulted in a great difference in predictable weather patterns.
His findings challenged a long-standing philosophical assumption basic to science: that given an approximate knowledge of a system’s initial conditions and an understanding of natural law, one can calculate the approximate behaviour of the system. (Gleick, 1990:15) Interestingly, this understanding, that small inputs can have dramatically disproportionate consequences and that slight differences in initial conditions can produce very different outcomes, has long been recognised informally in everyday life and is illustrated by this well-known saying:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
All for want of a nail.
Had we been familiar with the complexity metaphor sensitive dependence on initial conditions, would we have been able to save the kingdom? I think not. At a micro level, we can know everything about nails and shoe mending and yet remain unable to predict the loss of a kingdom. The loss of the kingdom represents an emergent outcome that was highly dependent on multiple sets of initial conditions.
In utilising this metaphor of sensitive dependence on initial conditions in organisational settings, we need to ask what constitutes the initial conditions. Here you will need to be thoughtfully discerning. Life is made up of instances, one instance plus the next instance and so on. You will need to take into account something of the history of the phenomenon in deciding what should be focussed upon as the initial conditions. Is it when the company was first discussed amongst mates? Is it the first meeting of the new management team following a restructure? What is important is to take the presenting circumstances of concern as your starting point and then track back into the history of this situation, as therein will lie the clues to why things have emerged in the way that they have.
Drawn from Lesley Kuhn: Adventures in Complexity: For organisations at the edge of chaos