Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Making Change according to ‘The Flamingo Effect’

An ecologist studying migrating flamingos on Kenya’s Lake Nairasha noticed an interesting phenomenon.

Every year, when the time came for migration, a few flamingos started the process by taking off from the lake. Since none of the others took any notice, they soon turned around and came back.

The next day they tried again. This time a few others struggled along with them but again, the vast majority carried on as usual, so the pioneers returned to the lake.

This trend continued for a few days. Each time a few more birds joined in but, since the thousands of others still took no notice, the migration plan was aborted.

Finally, one day, the same few birds took off again. This time, however, the tiny increment to their number was enough to tip the balance. The whole flock took flight and the migration began.

Rory Spowers, who tells this story (p85) in his book A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks, makes these comments:

“Various terms have been developed to describe this process—‘critical mass’, ‘tipping point’, ‘the hundredth monkey’. Chaos theory talks about the ‘butterfly effect’, suggesting that a butterfly flapping its wings in Sumatra can start a tornado in Idaho. The insight is that tiny incremental changes within the dynamics of a complex system can lead to very dramatic effects further down then line.

Rory has found this idea to be so empowering that he has developed Project Flamingo as part of the Web of Hope movement.

Source: Rory Spowers, A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks. This book is reviewed at Reviewing Books and Movies.

Image: Flamingos on a Kenyan Lake.