The Butterfly Effect

Within that structure, if the product development process at times seems chaotic, it is! If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, this could cause a storm in Belgium the next week. You have heard the story or maybe have seen the movie. This is the basis of the mathematics of chaos, where a small event can have enormous and unpredictable consequences down the road. The decision-making process in prod­uct development has many similarities to the butterfly flapping its wings, the seemingly small event. Decision making, like wing flap­ping, is highly causal: one apparently insignificant decision can signif­icantly affect the outcome, just like one flap of the butterfly’s wings can have a profound effect on the weather.

so it is with product development that every decision affects every other decision, with one decision connected to the next, and each downstream decision dependent on previous choices. if a slightly different decision were made—say, to create a different visu­al line in a vehicle, or select a different spring mechanism in a toast­er, or choose a different material for the bristles in a toothbrush—the implications of those decisions produce a very different vehicle, toast­er, or toothbrush.

Unlike the butterfly, product developers can influence the out­come of the process. The research, insight, and feel for the product and process allow them to make decisions that are likely to lead to more successful outcomes. Each informed or insightful decision affects the next informed or insightful decision, and so on. The but­terfly wing flapping is very much a random occurrence in the weath­er system; the butterfly at best can control its own flight and has no awareness beyond its own activities. The butterfly does not under­stand causation. successful product developers understand the cause-effect relationship and the overall implications of feature selec­tion and form choices for the product’s gestalt—how the product looks and functions as a whole. Unfortunately, some product developers are more like the butterfly. They make independent deci­sions without a thorough understanding of the market opportunity, the customer, or the rest of the product as a whole, never under­standing why their product falters or fails in the marketplace.

The butterfly flapping its wings is, for the weather system, a ran­dom event. Decision making in product development is not. That said, many random influences provide fodder for decision making. For example, the brainstorming process used so frequently early in design to stimulate ways of conceptualizing possible product solu­tions is wrought with random thoughts and analogies. The seemingly random thought process is filtered with an early understanding of the marketplace, directing the process toward a blissful instead of stormy end.

Throughout the product development process, random external events do occur that cannot be predicted. Political and social events rapidly change needs and desires of a customer base. Increased gas prices lead to concern about gas mileage and, eventually, fewer trucks and SUVs sold. As a result of 9/11, there is less travel and more focus on safety. It is hard to predict what the competition will do. A dis­ruptive technology, or even one that makes small but noticeable improvements, may mean disruption in bringing a product to market.

some of these external events are devastating to a product or company, whereas others are not. As a result of 9/11, most airlines in the United States struggled while respirator company Mine Safety Appliance had record earnings as people purchased gas masks in record numbers. Although an event like 9/11 was unexpected, and its impact on the economy and psyche clearly was unusual, it does illus­trate the need for a system that is robust to random influences. New Balance, having made the social decision to keep a portion of its products “made in America,” was positioned to stand against foreign competition and American competitors that made their products overseas as people in the United States made emotion-based purchases after 9/11.