Jay Cross helps people work and live smarter. Jay is the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning. He wrote the book on it. He was the first person to use the term eLearning on the web. He has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix.

read more


Butterfly people

posted on
July 2nd, 2010

The performance of workers used to have bounds. The fastest bricklayer was maybe 20% faster than the average bricklayer.

In conceptual work, the sky’s the limit. A superstar may generate $50 million in value while the average employee brings in a meager $50 thousand.

Several things are going on here. For one, rates of production are no longer limited by physical factors. A bricklayer can only lay so many bricks per hour before his heart gives out. There’s no such limit on ideas. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, thought up Google when they were in graduate school; it was a $100 billion idea.

In today’s complex world, small events often make giant impacts.  A popular example is “the butterfly effect.” A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, and the reverberation helps create a tornado in Texas.

Back to Google. They have found that a great hire, a super-engineer, will generate two hundred times the value of her middle-of-the-road peer. Recalling the butterfly effect, let’s call the super-engineer a “butterfly person.”

What proportion of your organization’s development resources should be invested in butterfly people?


  • Donald Clark - July 2, 2010 at 8:32 pm -

    Delong & Vijayaraghavan (2003) reported that it makes more sense to go after the large middle-base (B-players) as they make up the great majority of employees (80%) as opposed to the top 10% of star A-players, and the bottom 10% of incompetent C-players):

    “Like all prize-winning supporting actors, B-players bring depth and stability to the companies they work for, slowly but surely improving both corporate performance and organizational resilience… They will never garner the most revenue or the biggest clients, but they also will be less likely to embarrass the company or flunk out… these players inevitably end up being the backbone of the organization.”

    The authors further noted that an organization’s long-term performance and survival deeply depends far more on the contributions of their B-players. These steady performers counter-balance the ambitions of the company’s high-performing visionaries, whose strengths, when carried to an extreme, can lead to reckless or volatile behavior. Thus, B-players stabilize the actions of the A-players.

    Delong, T. J., Vijayaraghavan, V. (2003). Let’s Hear It for B-Players. Harvard Business Review, 2003 Jun; 81(6):96-102, 137.

  • Jay Cross - July 6, 2010 at 2:19 pm -

    A friend emailed me this comment: “There’s more to this story, especially the dimension of time — and accumulated value. When the bricklayer is done, the value is there. It’s the finish line. When the software engineer is done, the value has just started to accrue. It’s the starting line. Developers’ work can add incremental value for years to come. And that’s to say nothing of the technical breakthroughs that become significant competitive advantages (e.g., trade secrets), protected intellectual property (e.g., patents), and ecosystem generation (e.g., open source). With intellectual activities, the temporal dimension is a significant factor.”


  • Leave a Reply

    4 × three =


    Welcome to Jay’s hangout on the web! There’s a lot underneath the hood here. I’ve been blogging more than a dozen years. Go to “coordinates” for a list of what to check out and how to get in touch. Don’t miss the Important Stuff collection.

    Twitter: jaycross