Innovation & the Butterfly Effect

July 31, 2013 at 9:19 AM

Edward Lorenz presented a hypothesis to the New York Academy of Science in 1963.  His theory simply stated that:

“A butterfly could flap its wings and set molecules of air in motion, which would move other molecules of air, in turn moving other molecules of air, in turn moving more molecules of air -- eventually capable of starting a hurricane on the other side of the planet.”   Andy Andrews in The Butterfly Effect.

Andrews goes on to relay the story about how Lorenz and his ideas were the laughing stock at the Academy conference, and the butterfly effect became for decades fodder for myth and legend.  More than three decades later, Lorenz’s’ theory was scientifically proven by physics professors from colleges and universities worldwide and was soon understood as universal law. 

The ‘butterfly effect’, known in the scientific community as The Law of Sensitive Dependence Upon Initial Conditions, is the concept featured in his book of the same name and used by Andrews to heighten our awareness to profound levels around this one idea: “Every Single Thing You Do Matters.”

Universal Laws

Each of us understands universal law.  For example, we can’t see gravity, but we know that we are all bound by gravity every second of every day - it’s what keeps our feet planted to the earth and from floating into the atmosphere.  Let’s look at The Law of Attraction, which simply states, “like attracts like.” We can’t see the energy that human thought produces, but we know it when it is manifested in physical form of some kind.  Another Universal Law, The Law of Cause and Effect, explains that the second event is directly caused by the first event, in a series of events. 

The point is that universal laws bind us all, whether we are aware of, or acknowledge, their unseen ruling over us.  And if every single thing you and I do matters, this big idea begs the question: how do we harness the multiplier effect these laws bring to bear on each of us for what and how we do (our work)?


The concept of innovation is often paired with a startup venture or with an established enterprise that places value on growth through research and development of new products and services.  Like the Butterfly Effect, we can’t see innovation.  We can see the outcomes of innovative processes, but it’s not tangible.  Innovation is human energy that has the potential to become a force when it collects like energy from a group of people working together with a single focus.  Just like a great recipe, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

A New Startup Way

We are learning much from the lean startup movement, which was fashioned after Stanford D-school’s Lean Launchpad and has been adapted by west coast entrepreneurs and authors Steve Blank, Eric Ries and Will Harvey.

The lean startup movement boasts the development of a minimum viable product above the traditional, often costly and high-risk development paths that a new venture and/or new product effort pursues before ever getting in front of a customer.  In lieu of comprehensive business plans, 5-year revenue forecasts, and long development cycles, the lean startup process begins with a business model based on hypotheses.  It’s these hypotheses, not fully developed products, which are put before customers to learn, iterate and transform. 

Customer Discovery, including the Business Model Canvas, is starting to be taught by business schools, but it has not yet gone mainstream.   Ventureprise, a support organization for innovation-driven entrepreneurs, will offer a structured Customer Discovery program.  In this program, entrepreneurs with an idea for a business will enroll in an intensive, six-week workshop and customer discovery process to create and test their hypotheses, iterate after feedback from mentors, and deliver a minimum viable product to begin trying proposed solutions on customers.  If your business already has customers, you are too far along for this program.

Willingness to Fail

Lean startup techniques are beginning to be seen as the better way to create a new company or new product.  It seems illogical to suggest to an entrepreneur that we want you to fail, and to fail big and to fail often, but this is the new process of lean development.  Failure runs counter to the human condition, especially to the entrepreneur.   Built in as an essential component to this lean start up concept, with its many iterations to get to customer validation, is the willingness to fail – to possibly fail several times over – in order to increase the odds that your end product will be exactly what the customer wants and is willing to pay for. 

One of the key traits we assign to entrepreneurs that set them apart is the acceptance of the risk of failure.  However, this acceptance ignites a locus of internal control that drives entrepreneurs to keep moving forward and to not fail.  Failure is the mortal enemy of the entrepreneur, much like it is to pro-sports athletes.   The stakes are high as they both put everything they have on the line, give it everything they’ve got, to win and succeed.  

Failure in the conditioning process sharpens the saw.  With failure comes the opportunity for success.  A pro-athlete embraces failure during their process of conditioning and practice in order to win the game.  Most athletes’ fitness regimen pushes their muscles to failure as a condition of getting stronger.  Many practice with (and fail to) superior performers (machines, even) to improve their abilities and increase their odds for a win.   

Innovation & the Butterfly Effect

If failure, similar to the athlete’s conditioning process, is the essential energy required for the entrepreneur to prepare for the big game, but failure runs anathema to the core of the entrepreneur’s spirit, how will this energy shift from one of resistance, to become a positive, powerful force aimed at failure as goal to ultimately experience success? 

In other words, how you teach an entrepreneur that he or she must fail to succeed? 

The entire Lean Startup process is forcing change to the business language around the startup and new product development process to reflect all new ways of bringing ideas to ready customers: Business Model v. Business Plan; Customer Development v. Product Management; Agile Development v. Waterfall or Linear Development – with more changes coming as this process proliferates across entrepreneurial ecosystems. 

The Lean Startup process looks to become the entrepreneur’s conditioning and fitness regimen for getting to the big game – the marketplace.   The entrepreneur needs to take a page from the elite athlete, who already harnesses the energy that failure brings in the conditioning process, to make their business better and to increase their odds for the win.  These lean techniques alone may not make the individual entrepreneur successful, but as Steve Blank claims in Harvard Business Review – Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything:  “Using lean methods across a portfolio of startups will result in fewer failures than using traditional methods.”

Steve Blank further writes: “… lean startup techniques … in combination with other business trends … could ignite a new entrepreneurial economy.”

We are ready for an innovation-based, entrepreneurial economy!  Stay tuned.

Marilyn, Director Venture Development 

About Marilyn

Marilyn Carpenter comes to Ventureprise with over twenty years of proven performance in business development, sales, and marketing for entrepreneurial organizations. Most notably, Marilyn was employed as the Senior Vice President, Sales and Marketing for Source Technologies, Inc., managing a $65 million business unit with a team of twenty marketing and sales professionals.

In 2006, Marilyn achieved the Associate Certified Coaching certification from the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She created a coaching and content program – Sales Entrepreneur Institute - to engage entrepreneurial sales and marketing teams with go-to-market strategy shifts required for success through social media, personal branding, social networking and community building.

Most recently, Marilyn worked as the Director of Business Development for UNC Charlotte College of Computing and Informatics, to successfully launch the new NSF I/UCRC research site for Safety, Security, and Rescue.

Marilyn is also a published author and a speaker, with a focus on training and development.

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