MIND YOUR VARIABLES
A quick apology before we start. Anyone who doesn’t like trivia or football (US readers please note: I mean proper, Imperialist football, not guys with pretend shoulders running up and down) will need to skip the first few paragraphs. Oh, and I’m sorry about this low status thing I have about needing to apologise for doing what I want. Please love me anyway).
Where was I? Oh yes, my favourite piece of trivia this week. You are doubtless familiar with the tenet of chaos theory that a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo causes a hurricane in Stockton on Tees or somewhere like that. Well, I came across the prototype of this saying last week while researching a team exercise on the history of science (just think, kids, before you make that trip to the careers advisor: is the consultant’s life really for you?). Should you be preparing for a pub quiz, you might like to know that the butterfly wasn’t in Tokyo at all. The actual line was: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas? So there you go.
Chaos theory was on my mind this week as I pondered the opening few weeks of the UK football season. Everton, according to the pundits, have had their worst start to the season since the year 58BC. Curiously, it follows their best season since the Tang Dynasty: back in May they were fourth in the league. Manager David Moyes, feted a year ago as second only to Nelson Mandela in the race for beatification, will doubtless be getting his P45 within a few weeks.
But why the change in fortune? And does it really have anything to do with the manager? Look at Newcastle United, Everton’s neighbours in the bowels of the Premiership. Manager Graham Souness was recently on the verge of losing his job following a run of bad results. Until, that is, his bosses decided to spend £17 million on buying Michael Owen from real Madrid. Owen scored in the next two games, which Newcastle won as a result. Suddenly Souness, who personally doesn’t seem to have done anything different at all, is safe.
Two things are going on here. First, the ups and downs of football clubs are living proof that complex systems never behave in a totally predictable way. The manager is but one variable among thousands - if not millions. (Never mind the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, the chafing of a centre forward’s underpants can presumably make the difference between a winning goal and a horrendous close range miss.) Second, something in the human condition loves ritual sacrifice. Team doing badly? Project all suffering onto the manager, and give him the chop.
How does this relate to what goes on in a typical organisation? First of all, ritual sacrifice is clearly alive and well. Shareholders inevitably call for the CEO’s head when the share price dips. Often they’re successful. But consider what happens next. First, just like a departing football manager, The disgraced Chief Exec will typically pick up the top job with a different firm. Which suggests, that, deep down, no one really believes he or she actually had much to do with share price fluctuations. The collision of two complex systems, an organisation and the global equities market, may be slightly more than one individual can control comfortably.
The next thing that happens is the underperforming organisation appoints a new boss, who orders a major restructuring. Typically, only the new boss - and a couple of analysts who’ve been treated to lunch at Petrus - believes this is a good idea. Why? Well, two possible reasons:
1) We live in a chaotic world, and so you never know: we might just catch the variables which prove to be a major influence on success.
2) A recently published case study shows that another organisation did the same thing and it worked.
Ah, the insidious fallacy of the Case Study approach. Read the small print: It worked for anther organisation with a different leader, different staff, different offices, different weather… need I go on? The ‘behaviour modelling’ approach beloved by NLP enthusiasts has the same small print. I have no trouble accepting the premise that if I look at what someone did to get a successful outcome and reproduce it exactly I will have the same result. But then I have to exactly reproduce every variable that had even the tiniest influence on the situation as it was when the person in question got their outcome. And I might not know what underpants they were wearing.
So, what’s the moral? Well, if I were you, I’d become a CEO, or a football manager, and ride in the butterfly’s slipstream every couple of years. But you must be prepared to end up in Texas.