On a recent trip, our editor, Lauren Gow, very nearly missed her flight through no fault of her own. So, how do you risk manage for The Butterfly Effect?

Having spent years surrounded by risk management professionals, both personally and professionally, you would assume I would be fluent in all things risk. However, one event has made me question whether I really am as equipped as I should be. 

On my recent trip back from the UK to Sydney, I very nearly didn’t make my flight. I was staying in Fulham and needed to get to Heathrow - a distance of only 10 miles or 16 kilometres. I called an Uber and gave myself more than 3 and a half hours to make my flight and, if I am being perfectly honest, to shop for things I want but do not need in duty-free. I felt this was above and beyond what was needed in terms of risk management. Boy, I was wrong.

A serious car accident on the M4 just ahead of me brought west London to a standstill. I spent the next 2 hours and 40 mins in a cab as my poor driver tried to find a way to get me through the traffic, to no avail. My careful planning went completely out the window and I eventually became a hysterical mess at the Singapore Airlines check-in counter, begging to be allowed through. (As an aside, I now know who those people are who are seen frantically running through airports, yelling at people to move and looking like they are on the run from the federal police for terrorism offences. Me, I am those people.)


But what was most fascinating about this experience was how the decision by a single driver to pull out in front of a motorcyclist on the M4 in London caused global chaos; a fact which I am sure he or she remains blissfully unaware. As it turns out, behind me in the traffic chaos was the flight crew for not only my flight, but also another 30+ flights. Flights were delayed for hours as one plane after another missed their allocated takeoff slot and air traffic control scrambled to get all the delayed flights in the air. Fourteen hours later, upon arrival into Singapore for my connection to Sydney, I was informed that this flight was also delayed “because of a traffic incident in London.” Extraordinary, I thought, wondering how this single event could have had such a huge impact on so many people.

In academia, this is known as The Butterfly Effect. A subset of chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. In other words, one small action can create big reactions elsewhere.

My experience got me thinking - how do you risk manage for the butterfly effect? What kind of allowances and parameters do you need to set in place to cushion for this sort of occurrence? In my own situation, should I have left 4 hours earlier for a 10 mile journey? This seems a ridiculous way to manage the risk and probably a spectacular waste of time because chances are, this type of incident won’t occur again on my watch.

If any of my risk manager readers have an answer for me, I would love to hear it. By reaching out, perhaps you will save me from future YouTube video fame “Crazy lady on the run through airport.”