Butterflies are dangerous!

When company management and their external advisers talk about large-scale fundamental change, the typical analogy used is that of the butterfly turning from a pupa to an adult with wings. The desire is to do a “transformation” – dramatically, rapidly and irreversibly changing the company.

Transformations such as organization chart changes or changes in ways of working are often done using roughly the following logic

  • Analyze current situation in depth (by the top team)
  • Develop blueprint for new ways of working (by the top team)
  • Announce new ways of working and “Day-1″ to the organization (by the top team)
  • … and then the organization tries to implement these blueprints in the next months, typically in a chaotic firefighting process

When it comes to organizational change and transformations, an often quoted statistic is that ~70% of the changes fail – no butterfly emerges from the pupa. Reasons for failure are typically labelled as “resistance to change” – the organization does not embrace the new ways of working developed by the top team in isolation during the preparation phase.

Interestingly, a similar failure rate is quoted for software projects using the “waterfall approach”. The waterfall approach is similar to the model for organizational change depicted above – first design the software, then code it, and then hand it over to the user to see what (if anything) happens.

In software projects, companies are increasingly turning to agile methods for coding. The idea is to break the long development phase into shorter cycles with the aim of having a working product (even if crude and unfinished) after each. The end users can experience the product and are encouraged to give new guidance on desired features – whereas in the waterfall paradigm these “changing customer requirements” were seen as the worst type of evil. Success rates are up to three times higher for agile projects compared to waterfall methods.

What if similar methods were applied in organization design and business transformations? What if we would let go of the notion that the butterfly magically emerges from the pupa in one go, and instead accept that in reality, the change is actually a very gradual process, taking many days (long time in insect life), and crucially, one in which the butterfly actually is in a living and functioning state at all times during the transformation? Recent science supports this idea as seen in the images below (from Lowe et al., 2013)

Butterfly stages
Image from Lowe et. al (2013): “Metamorphosis revealed: time-lapse three-dimensional imaging inside a living chrysalis”. Interface, vol 10 issue 84. Published under Creative Commons Attribution License.


So next time you are planning a transformation, don’t focus just on the butterfly, but on all the intermediary stages in between. How to involve the whole organization into gradually and iteratively changing towards a better state? How to avoid the embarrassing moment when you announce something developed in isolation by the top team to the whole organization, and experience frustration, fear and confusion instead of the “aha moment” you were hoping for.


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