For Want of a Nail: When Little Things Make a Difference


“For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of horseshoe nail.”

The following article is by Carlyn Rowe

This week, my partner and I had the opportunity to sit in on a client’s weekly status meeting at their headquarters. Each week, the client’s corporate branch gets together to discuss leadership principles and ideas. This week’s lesson was about The Butterfly Effect.

The Butterfly Effect is the idea that small actions have greater consequences. The idea gets its name from an American mathematician and meteorologist who believed that a butterfly could flap his wings on one side of the world and set a series of events in motion that could cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. If you are a Jurassic Park fan like me, this may sound familiar to you. Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) mentions it to Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) in this scene of the movie.

How does this idea translate to business?

Every business, big and small, is only as strong as their internal organization. Each department and individual staff member are working toward a larger common goal. Because of this, every business must live in the everyday. This is not to say that big picture thinking and ideas are not important, because they are. They are the common goal that keeps all of the separate parts in motion.

Because businesses must exist in the everyday operations, small actions become very important. Decisions made on a daily basis affect the larger organization. This is where the Butterfly Effect becomes important.

Here’s an example. Company A has a weekly morning meeting. At the last minute, a sales executive schedules a meeting for a client in the same room as the company meeting. The administrative assistant must now scramble to find a new place for either the weekly meeting or the client meeting. The assistant keeps the client meeting in the room, and moves the weekly meeting to a smaller room in a different part of the building. The assistant sends out an email, but because of the last minute decision, many people will not receive it in time for the start of the meeting. This will cause in late arrivals, the meeting start to be delayed, and the work day to start later. What will be missed because the meeting started late? How will the company course-correct?

Here’s another example. An ice storm hits the night before work. The decision is made to keep the office open the next day. The walk up to the office is slippery, but the groundskeeper has stayed home today. If the walkway is not iced, people will slip and fall. This will cause possible injuries that could stall production. An office manager arrives early with salt. The office manager salts the walk and places orange cones over the slick areas. The office manager made a decision that morning. Their action created a safe walkway, which allowed workers to arrive to work without injury, and production to continue. A decision is made that leads to an action that leads to a safe work environment and no halt in productivity.

Small decisions and actions may not appear to have larger repercussions, but they can affect larger actions that can affect the whole organization. The organization must be organized and willing to adapt when these actions, both negative and positive, occur.

The Butterfly Effect reminded me of an old proverb called “For Want of a Nail.” The poem explains how a small horseshoe nail leads to a series of events that cause a pivotal battle to be lost, and a kingdom with it. Paying attention to small details and actions can make all of the difference. These actions can have negative or positive outcomes for your business, even if that outcome may not be clear at first. Don’t let your business be lost for want of a horseshoe nail. Be aware of decisions and their effects on your organization.