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The Butterfly Effect– Small Actions Big Effects

Standard 7 – Staff

As I’ve been thinking about Accreditation Standard 7- Staff, I’ve thought of mentors and colleagues who inspired and encouraged me and others whose negative approach was counterproductive.  The common theme in both groups was the profound impact that the actions of a single individual can have on others and on entire communities of practice.   It’s trite but true – people make all the difference.

You’ve heard of the butterfly effect – also called “sensitivity to initial conditions”? The Oxford Dictionary defines butterfly effect as “the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere.”  In 1972 Edward Lorenz, an MIT mathematician and meteorologist, wrote a theoretical physics paper, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”  The paper described how small actions can have a lasting impact.

“A professor at MIT, Lorenz was the first to recognize what is now called chaotic behavior in the mathematical modeling of weather systems. In the early 1960’s, Lorenz realized that small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere–or a model of the atmosphere–could trigger vast and often unsuspected results.”

Dr. Lorenz’s work became the foundation for chaos theory.  One of the three core assumptions of chaos theory is “sensitivity to initial condition”.  The butterfly effect has been investigated and offered as an explanatory concept in science, agriculture, the arts, community action, business, finance, education and politics – wherever there is a complex, non-linear, dynamic system.

Communities of people are certainly complex, non-linear, dynamic systems.  Small actions can be the precipitating event that results in pervasive, unexpected behavior that changes an entire society.  The compassionate actions of one staff member can impact a patient’s entire family network.   An innovative, caring action by a trainee can transform a school health program. A person’s attitude or how other’s perceive an attitude can transform a situation.

The Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture has just opened in DC — a wonderful example of the butterfly effect.  It’s a bipartisan legacy that chronicles beauty and despair, bravery, casually inflicted unimaginable cruelties, and the invaluable contributions of individual African Americans to the evolution of the United States.  There is Rosa Parks, the ‘mother of the modern day civil rights movement’.  Through a simple, profound action, sitting in the ‘front’ of the bus and refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger, Rosa Parks became an enduring symbol of courage and positive change for generations to come.

Training environments that encourage small kindnesses, compassionate caring, interprofessional and patient-centered care, combined with moment-to-moment striving for excellence will transform the communities served and the training community.  Standard 7 – Staff is intended to foster creating and sustaining training environments that exemplify positive attitudes through embracing diversity and innovation, striving for excellence, interacting with intuitive civility and compassion.

As John Legends sings in his 2008 song, If You’re Out There,

“Believe again, start to mend.
We don’t have to wait for destiny.
We should be the change we want to see.”

In health and peace.  Until next time,