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Three Reasons Change Agents Must Watch Out for Butterflies

By Melissa J. Anderson

Last week the Women Corporate Directors Global Institute 2011 was held at JP Morgan Chase‘s headquarters in New York City. The two-day summit included panel discussions on subjects ranging from risk and complexity to global scarcities and corporate social investing.

The keynote speaker at the event was Edie Weiner, president of Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc., a futurist consulting group. In addition to being the “youngest outside woman ever elected to the board of directors of a major financial institution (Union Mutual Life Insurance Company), Weiner now sits on the Comptroller General’s Advisory Board, the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, The Women’s Leadership Exchange, and the board of The SyFy Channel.

During her keynote, “No Time for the Timid; The Unprecedented Challenges Facing Boards,” Weiner stated that board members and individuals involved in change leadership must be watchful for butterflies.

Referring to the saying that a butterfly flapping its wings can create a hurricane, she explained that we live in a world of complex open systems. Seemingly disparate events do, in fact, have a relationship.

By thinking about complexity, she explained, we can identify long term trends and make better decisions.

Here are three reasons, according to Weiner’s speech, on why change agents must seek out butterflies.

1. You Never Know What Might Start a Revolution

According to Weiner, one butterfly was Mark Zuckerberg’s relationship woes. She said that after getting dumped by his girlfriend several years ago, he went on to found a “girl comparison site” which led to his founding Facebook. That technology gave way to this spring’s turmoil across the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Obviously, the Arab Spring was the result of a confluence of a number of events, technologies, and cultural attitudes. But Weiner explained how one small, seemingly limited event can reverberate throughout the world, especially in the complex, open system in which we all now live.

2. Anticipate Market Disruptions

Weiner continued by discussing the recent tragic earthquake in Japan and the ensuing Tsunami and loss of life (according to the Japanese National Police Agency, almost 30,00 people have died, been injured, or are still missing).

“If you look at the situation from the perspective of the future, it becomes more complex,” she said.

Weiner explained that after World War II, Japan’s population loss and subsequent flat population growth and labor shortage led to the country’s leadership in the area of automation and robotics. She anticipates a second wave of robotic innovation due to the population decline following the earthquake. She asked what this could mean for the future of Japan’s workforce, and implied that it would impact labor forces across the world.

3. Plan for the Long Term

“Too often management trains boards into focusing on the short term,” Weiner said. “It isn’t easy seeing into the future, and it isn’t easy doing the right thing by shareholders.” But, she continued, that is the board’s job.

“Governance is not management. It is oversight that soars above the day to day operations,” to ensure the overall health of the company and of its societal context, Weiner said.

“In a complex system, risk is certain. And if humans are involved, risk is even more certain,” she explained. By watching out for butterflies – seemingly singular events that can have a reverberating effect throughout an open system – business leaders and change agents can be better prepared to achieve a long term vision.

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