Butterflies, Tornadoes and Organisational Change: Adopting a Systems Thinking Mindset in Org Design

“A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a tornado in Texas.”

From Chaos theory to Sci-fi films, the idea that small changes at a local level can have profound impacts at the grandest of scales – often referred to as ‘The Butterfly Effect’ – is a well-known saying in popular discourse.

But what lessons can we take from ‘The Butterfly Effect’ in the world of work, and more specifically, within contexts of organisational change?

Well, unless you are working with wildlife or in meteorology, you don’t need to take the saying at face value – butterflies are unlikely to cause catastrophic climatic events. But the notion that chain reactions are caused by seemingly unrelated events or processes is very important to consider when undertaking any organisational change activities, no matter how large or small the change activities may be.

Organisations as Systems

All key processes in an organisation are interrelated and any actions that take place in one part of the organisation can trigger a chain reaction in another part. This principle is commonly referred to as Systems Thinking and is a fundamental mindset that any org design practitioner should adopt when designing or implementing organisational change.

Whether it’s clarifying roles and responsibilities for a single process, embedding new ways of working between specific teams or prioritising capability investments within a function, the org designer should always think about the broader impacts of the change across the whole organisational system. If you limit your thinking to only the areas you’ve been tasked to improve, it might turn out that the improvement in one place is outweighed by the negative impacts of those changes that play out in another part of the organisation.

When you’re in System Thinking mode, curiosity can be a great starting point. Try to ask questions like, “what am I not seeing here,” or, “what’s under the surface that I don’t understand”. Each of us in the system have our own perspectives or viewpoints of a given context – the parts we know and can see, and the parts that are hidden and unknown to us (that are different from those of others). For this reason, curiosity also means getting broad perspectives on the sort of questions you’re asking, rather than relying on the viewpoint of a limited few.

Thinking Strategically about Systems

Often, we are told to think strategically about change – that is to focus on the analysis of critical factors and variables that will influence the long-term success of a business, a team, or an individual. But the effectiveness of this strategic thinking in organisational design is dependent on the extent to which we have thought about the changes within the wider organisational system.

Adopting systems thinking helps you to look at connected wholes rather than separate parts, practice curiosity and seek out root causes, and ultimately expand the range of options available for solving a problem – whether that be designing or implementing organisational change. Systems Thinking is a powerful mindset that provides a holistic way of understanding organisations and approaching organisational design work.

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