Badass Butterfly Tactics: Boosting Lawyer Engagement with Small, Doable Acts

Topics: Law Firms, Leadership, Talent Development


In 1961, while meteorologist Edward Lorenz was working on a computerized weather simulation program, he took a shortcut by rounding off a number from .506127 to .506. He assumed that such a tiny change would be inconsequential. But the impact was dramatic. This accidental finding led him to the discovery that something as small as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could set off an unpredictable chain of events that led to a tornado in Texas. That’s the story of the birth of the “butterfly effect”—the concept that small events can have large, widespread consequences.

The butterfly effect is a good reminder if you’re thinking about manageable ways to invigorate your law firm. Large-scale change efforts can be expensive and time-consuming—and too often a waste because engrained patterns can be hard to change. Understanding this, organizational scientists have focused increasingly on how small changes, consistently applied, can generate sizeable results. The research has been particularly promising in showing enhancement of workforce engagement, which in turn has been linked to profitability and other positive business results.

Given that lawyers so often feel rushed and overloaded at work, the idea of bite-sized acts with a powerful punch may appeal to them. Having been a BigLaw partner for a decade myself, I think initiatives emphasizing small changes have a much better chance of succeeding. With this in mind, I will use my blog posts to periodically recommend doable ideas for positive change that are scientifically-supported—which I’ll call Badass Butterfly Tactics (BBT). The label is meant to underscore that these aren’t tutu-wearing butterflies that flit around to a George Winston soundtrack. These are tattooed little powerhouses that rock to Muse and mean business. Now that you’ve got the right picture in your mind, let’s move on to the first BBT.

The first BBT is what I’ll call Kaizen Spotting. Kaizen is the Japanese concept of continuous improvement—especially leading to big results through small changes over time. The idea of Kaizen Spotting is to continually spot and highlight even small wins achieved by lawyers and staff. This recommendation is supported by a number of studies, including work by researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer published in The Progress Principle.

The idea of Kaizen Spotting is to continually spot and highlight even small wins achieved by lawyers and staff.

In an innovative study, Amabile and Kramer recruited professionals to complete daily email surveys to evaluate “inner work life.” They asked participants about their perceptions of the work environment, mood, motivation levels, what work they did, and what events stood out in their minds. The researchers also elicited monthly feedback from managers and colleagues about performance, commitment, and collegiality. They found that inner work life significantly influenced job performance and behavior toward coworkers. They also found that, of all the positive events that influenced inner work life, the most powerful was progress in meaningful work. Even seemingly mundane events—such as small wins or minor setbacks—potently influenced inner work life. Further, managers were largely unaware of how their own actions (even those that seemed trivial) could significantly impact workers.

To put Kaizen Spotting into practice, start scanning daily events to identify progress—even small wins—and call attention to them and their significance to the bigger picture. At the end of each day, for example, think about which one or two events represented small wins or indicated a possible breakthrough. Consider what you can do tomorrow to enhance and recognize progress and how to constructively manage setbacks. Don’t wait until the end of a matter to highlight each team member’s contribution toward forward progress—do it regularly. The Daily Progress Checklist is a tool that can support this daily exercise. Amabile and Kramer also created a tip sheet to help take advantage of their study’s findings.

Everyone can engage in Kaizen Spotting, and those who have supervisory responsibility (which includes most lawyers) should be particularly attentive to it. To encourage the exercise, consider ways to recognize effective Kaizen Spotters and celebrate their success.

As the above reflects, we shouldn’t underestimate the potentially huge impact that even small acts can have on law firm culture. As author and legendary New York Congressman Bruce Barton said: “Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think there are no little things.”