How the Butterfly Effect Happens in Your Network

Last week, I had the honor of listening to Chris Rosati speak about his adventures, starting with how he pulled a Robin Hood caper with a Krispy Kreme truck.  Here's a five minute video about his exploits that's well worth the watch:


Chris has ALS and decided that the best way to spend his remaining days is to spread kindness.  He decided that giving people donuts, a random act of kindness, would be a great start.  And that was what it was: a start. Chris later started Inspire Media Network to create films about kind acts, and BIGG (Big Ideas for the Great Good) clubs to support school children exercising acts of kindness. 

You may be wondering, at this point, what this has to do with networks, leadership and networking.  Chris Rosati developed one more thing, which he calls "Butterfly Grants".  The Butterfly Grants are sums of money given to people so that they can make someone else smile, be happy, or feel joy. He hoped that this act would lead to a cascade of kindness somewhere: a Butterfly Effect of social action.  The Butterfly Effect is the idea that a small action in one place - say a butterfly flapping its wings in North Carolina - can have a huge effect somewhere else - say causing a hurricane in the South China Sea.

Chris's Butterfly Grants are trying to stimulate that in daily culture: a big change due to some small acts of kindness.  It's a wonderful metaphor.  Or more, because network science shows that behaviors spread through a network in unexpected ways. 

Nicholas Christakis of Harvard and James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego are researchers who found curious network effects when they took a non-traditional look at data from a longitudinal heart disease study.  They took the Framingham Heart Study data set and analyzed the relational information: who participants listed as family and who they listed as close contacts in case the researchers couldn't find them.  This created a network diagram for each interval where the heart research data was taken.  When they looked at how relationships interacted with behaviors, they found something amazing.

Weight and tobacco use are two of the variables that are measured for the study.  If someone in the study lost or gained weight, they found that their close friends were 30% more likely to have lost or gained weight.  More interesting than that is that when a friend of a friend lost or gained weight, someone was 10% more likely to have lost or gained. 

The direct friend effecting our behavior is intuitive. It makes sense that someone we see regularly and care about can affect our behavior and result in a weight shift.  But the fact that a person we don't see regularly, if at all, has an influence on us is pretty amazing.  And this wasn't just with weight loss.  Starting and stopping smoking had similar effects from friends and friends of friends. 

This is great news for Chris Rosati and his hope that acts of kindness can spread.  While no research has yet shown that kindness spreads, we've seen multiple behaviors spread through networks so that people we don't even know are effected by our actions.  That means that a random act of kindness can have a multiplying effect as it spreads through your network.  Network science proves the butterfly effect in people's actions! 

So what can you do with this knowledge?  First, if you haven't yet, go watch the video about Chris Rosati's life mission.  It is powerful.  Second, do something kind for someone.  Big, small, it doesn’t matter.  An act of kindness will then ripple through your network.

Finally, a key point to realize: as much as your network affects you, you affect your network.  This is the core concept behind "The Networked Leader": leaders makes choices to shape their network.  Not just what connections they have, but the quality of the climate in the network.   When you are kind, your network becomes more kind.  When you are supportive, your network becomes more supportive. While it may sound new-agey, network science shows that you do receive back from your network the behaviors you put out into it.

So create the network climate you want.  Want help?  Be helpful.  Want coaching?  Help someone learn.  Like Chris Rosati spreading kindness, spread what you want to see, and it will eventually permeate your network.