The upstream butterfly effect

Published on 
4 min, 602 words

The butterfly effect famously states that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly somewhere in the world can impact the weather on the other side of the world - a small change can have a huge impact over time.

When I was at university a friend was studying engineering and decided to base his project on the impact of chaos. This was in the "early days" of the term chaos entering the mainstream. He used measuring a guitar case to demonstrate fractal dimensions, plotted 3d charts of his data and also built a double pendulum to demonstrate chaotic activity. He attached different colour LED lights to it and then set it off in a dark room. With our natural persistence of vision it was a pretty cool effect. He was able to very clearly show that a very small difference in the starting position led to a completely unpredictable outcome.

This brings me nicely to a book I recently finished called Upstream by Dan Heath. The theme of the book is making changes upstream of something to impact the outcome. This could be preventative approaches to medicine for example, where preventing a health issue is significantly cheaper and easier than dealing with the health complications further down the line. He also gives other examples including education.

He explains nicely how to look at the difference between upstream and downstream actions:

Downstream actions react to problems once they’ve occurred. Upstream efforts aim to prevent those problems from happening.

Solving everything upstream all sounds wonderful however there are a few issues he highlights.

It can be very difficult to justify taking an upstream action in some cases as you may not be able to determine what the result would have been without the intervention. This makes measuring the impact of the intervention difficult and in a lot of cases impossible.

It could also be the specific actions of one party that make a difference but the benefit is seen by a different party. This can lead to no-one wanting to invest in the upstream action as they will have to justify their investment and the impact it had. It would not be directly of benefit to them.

One of the things that ties most cases together is that a potentially small change can have a massive difference further down the line - the butterfly effect again.

I've also seen this in the business environment. At one company I worked for they had two main departments. Each department had a CTO (Chief Technology Officer). The CTO of our department was not afraid to stand up for what he believed or needed. This eventually led to him being effectively forced to leave.

The company then appointed the other CTO as head over both departments. The culture completely changed. I left after about a month but the impact was way more severe. Shortly after I left they had a string of resignations - thirteen people left on thirteen consecutive days. People were discussing with each other which day they were going to resign.

The seemingly small change of replacing the CTO had repercussions on that company that took a long time to recover from and also had a massive impact on those remaining.

The key takeaway is be conscious of decisions you make, things you say, actions you take - whether in business or life in general - as what might appear to be small could have a massive impact on the future of yourself and those around you.


Upstream by Dan Heath

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