Choices: even the smallest decisions have a big impact

Choices: even the smallest decisions have a big impact 

Choices: even the smallest decisions have a big impact

You may have heard of or even experienced the ‘ripple or butterfly effect.’ In chaos theory, the ripple or butterfly effect defines how one seemingly innocuous decision can have unforeseen consequences. In short, small things can have a big impact.

We make decisions every day in business and many of those decisions are viewed as isolated actions impacting only one area, department or individual. Yet, leaders often overlook or disregard the ripples that occur as a result of that one action. Even the smallest decisions create ripples across workflows, processes, responsibilities, communications, and more within an organization. Ripples can be positive or negative, or sometimes both, depending on the systems affected.

A Case in Point

This firm had five highly-experienced partners and several senior managers poised to move into the partnership. The firm had earned a reputation for quality work. The new managing partner was known for his conservative, no-nonsense approach to leadership and decision-making. The firm had experienced some attrition and needed to rebuild in some key areas. The senior managers wanted to increase the firm’s visibility in the marketplace to attract both potential clients and potential employees. The senior managers, along with the other partners proposed several initiatives to the managing partner, including a new web site, social media marketing, among other initiatives. The managing partner listened to their input and, without further consultation, had a new website developed.

Sounds like strong leadership and decision-making, right? Wrong.


Managing Partner’s View. The managing partner thought he had done well by his team. He could not understand why communication was stilted and ideas had ceased. He had, after all, listened to their input and taken action.

Team’s View. The senior managers and other partners were frustrated. They had brought new ideas to the table, but were given no opportunity to offer further insights. The new website did not meet the team’s expectations in terms of market positioning, content or functionality. They continued to struggle to attract professionals to join their firm. They viewed the firm’s culture as closed, dictatorial and outdated. They stopped offering ideas and kept communication to a minimum. The senior managers began looking for new positions with more progressive, innovative firms.

Systems Impacted. Team Moral. Recruiting. New Business Development. Communication. Innovation. Longevity. Succession Planning.

As in the example, leadership often doesn’t recognize how decisions can send unexpected ripples through the organization.

While predicting all the long-term effects of a decision can be nearly impossible, leadership can better manage the potential chaos (ripples) of their decisions by implementing a decision-making process that considers more than just the decision at hand. We recommend that firm leadership take a three-pronged approach to decision-making, taking into consideration: positioning, processes, and people.

Begin by identifying the systems within your organization like departments, communication channels, people, and processes. Then identify overlaps between the systems to understand the complexity of your organization. Think about:

  • Market positioning
  • Culture
  • Communication channels
  • Processes
  • Workflows
  • Moral
  • Innovation
  • Communication style
  • Decision-making
  • Service offerings
  • Service delivery
  • Technology

Just like the ocean, organizations are living, breathing entities with individuals or groups acting as separate eco-systems within its confines. Disruptions, even with good intentions, can have devastating effects. However, with a little understanding of the underlying organizational eco-system, leadership can make stronger decisions whose ripples are picture-perfect.