Archive for the ‘About the Butterfly Effect’ Category

Why The Butterfly Effect?

Posted by Gayle Gifford on October 1, 2008 in About the Butterfly Effect

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The Butterfly Effect refers to the popular notion that a small change in a complex and dynamic system can cause a chain of events leading to large scale change.

While we’re not convinced that the flapping wings of a butterfly would actually cause a tornado anywhere, we do know that small actions can make profound differences in the organizations that we care about.

We’ve both been frustrated that we didn’t have a way to share with our nonprofit colleagues all of the interesting research, ideas, musings, case studies, readings and other resources that may cause those small changes that can cause large and profoundly positive effects on the organizations and issues that matter to them.

So when we had the opportunity to pull that into a blog… how could we resist?

Plus, Gayle really loves butterflies (one of the few insects she does love. The monarch is a frequent and welcome visitor to our garden.) And what could be a better metaphor for consulting than a magnificent butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

We started Cause & Effect in 1996. Since then, we’ve worked with over 100 organizations, big and small, local and international. We’ve talked to hundreds of board members, staff and volunteers. We know the extraordinary impact you’ve already had. We’ve felt your pain. We are passionate about your potential. And we don’t think you have to reinvent processes that already work when you should be out changing the world.

We’re avid readers, on the internet and off. We read lots of stuff about nonprofits and more. We’re National Public Radio junkies and always find stories and features that relate directly to our clients. We believe (and our clients tell us) that our interest in the world matters because it’s hard to find consultants who really understand (or quickly pick up) the complexity and nuances of their issues.

Beyond our usual work in capacity building with nonprofits, we’ve had some other interesting assignments.

  • We compiled the Help America Vote Act HAVA State Plan for Rhode Island.
  • Jon developed two international exhibits on the concept of “habitat” applied to children– one that appeared at United Nations conferences in New York and Istanbul and another in Japan.
  • Gayle wrote a white paper on Green Power Marketing which for many years was posted on the web site of the Power Marketing Association of America, an industry trade group.

Yep, lots of stuff fills our two heads. And while we know it makes a difference in our consulting, we’re sure that we can have a bigger impact (that Butterfly Effect) if we transfer some of what we know and think about onto these pages to share with you.

And, because we keep learning every day, we’d love to hear what you are doing — to receive examples of those small changes that led to big results. So do post … we eager to meet you.

Best, Gayle & Jon

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Thank you, Edward Lorenz

Posted by Gayle Gifford on April 18, 2008 in About the Butterfly Effect, Big ideas

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We are sad to note that Edward Lorenz of MIT, “the father of chaos theory,” died today at age 90. (See the NY Times report here.) Lorenz was also the author of an article and metaphor that inspired the name of this blog.

That 1971 paper, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?” stated that in dynamic systems, vanishingly small differences in cause can lead to vast and unpredictable differences in effect. Scientists placed this insight on a par with those of Newton and Einstein in advancing our fundamental understanding of nature.

In 1961, Lorenz, a meteorologist, was working with mathematical models showing how weather systems developed when he discovered that a tiny rounding error of less than 0.1 percent had a vast impact on the model’s predicted weather outcome. Knowing that real weather in the natural world was a vastly more complex system than his simple program, Lorenz came to see that chaos – unpredictable, accumulating and nonlinear change – was inevitable in all complex systems.

Lorenz bequeaths two very important lessons for us and our nonprofit clients. First, even our small efforts have the potential to influence and even transform systems, like public education or the environment, that may at first appear to be far beyond the reach of our resources.

Even more importantly, we cannot reliably predict ultimate success or failure from our efforts. We can make projections, for instance fundraising projections, but only by simplifying our assumptions to a few factors like response rates, average gifts and the like. We cannot predict the Indonesian tsunami that will command worldwide attention for a month and pre-empt domestic fundraising for a month. We can’t model the vivacious volunteer who triples the take from our annual event by sheer force of personality.

Some find that absence of absolutely assured results frustrating, frightening, even paralyzing. Our refusal to promise certainty may have cost us a client or two.

But, we find uncertainty both exciting and liberating. Uncertainty frees us at last to bring our ever-incomplete analysis to an end and take action. Uncertainty means that the results and lessons from our best efforts will always be new and surprising. Uncertainty means we may always have hope.

So. thank you Edward Lorenz, for the gift of chaos and possibility.

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