Fast Company

If a Consultant Flaps His Lips in Yokohama ...

Consultant Debunking Unit

It's the Butterfly effect -- the latest myth to hit the management circuit.

What happens when you cross-pollinate the lucrative field of management consulting with the emerging science of chaos theory? Simple. You get the "Butterfly Effect."

Here's how Dudley Smith, president and CEO of the World Association of Management Consulting Firms, described the Butterfly Effect to a ballroom full of consultants at the group's 1996 world conference in Yokohama, Japan: "We are no better at guessing tomorrow's weather than we are at foretelling the millennium ... A butterfly in Java waves its wings and, as a result, the weather in Chicago turns nasty."

Smith's Java-meets-Chicago formulation is just one version of what's become the latest high-flying consulting story. The butterfly's locale can range from the Amazon to Zaire, its impact on the weather can be anything from "a ripple of wind" to a hurricane. But each time a consultant flaps his lips, the Butterfly Effect becomes more firmly entrenched as both a law of nature and a management axiom.

The image of a tiny butterfly in some exotic locale causing weather shocks thousands of miles away has a certain intellectual appeal. For businesspeople, the butterfly says: Newton was wrong. The universe does not run like a clock. Life is disorderly and unpredictable; the smallest change in conditions in one hemisphere can trigger titanic events.

It's a compelling message for harried executives trying to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world. Unfortunately, like so many consulting stories, it's also not true. Since the Butterfly Effect boils down to butterflies and the weather, Fast Company's Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) consulted experts in both fields.

The father of the Butterfly Effect is Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist at MIT. One day, while analyzing weather patterns, Lorenz left his computer terminal to get a cup of coffee. When he returned, he saw that his data points had gone haywire. A small change in his calculations had produced a major swing in his forecasts. That got him to thinking. And in a 1972 speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he posed a rhetorical question, "Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?"

Fifteen years later, Lorenz's musings found mass appeal with the publication of James Gleick's bestseller, "Chaos: Making a New Science." The book offered a detailed analysis of Lorenz's calculations and hypothesis -- what scientists had come to call "sensitive dependence on initial conditions." But the consultants who embraced the book as compelling literature took the Butterfly Effect much too literally.

Edward Lorenz is bemused by what's become of his speech. "I was just trying to determine why we didn't have better luck with our weather forecasts," he says. "I never reached a point where I believed the butterfly was a scientific fact. At most, it's a hypothesis. I never expected it to become so huge outside meteorology."

Even inside meteorology, the Butterfly Effect has limited support. Says Dr. H. Stuart Muench, meteorologist with the American Meteorological Society in Boston, "We would never consider a butterfly in predicting the weather. I hate to think what's going to happen in management if they're using this to predict the future."

Not only do meteorologists not use butterflies to predict the weather, adds Brendan McWilliams, assistant director of the Meteorological Service in Ireland, but the popular version of the Butterfly Effect has it all backward. A butterfly is more affected by the weather than the weather is by a butterfly, he argues. "Butterflies require sunshine for mobility. They're cold-blooded creatures and need the sun to flap their wings and fly," says McWilliams.

The CDU consulted a real butterfly man -- Julian P. Donahue, emeritus curator of lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. "The idea of a butterfly causing a tornado is baloney," Donahue declares.

What would it take for butterflies to cause a hurricane? "If all the members of a particular species of butterfly were to get coordinated and line up on a particular plane, that would have an effect," Donahue concedes. "But," he adds, "that would take a level of social organization that butterflies just don't have."

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