Ideas on People and Performance, Team Building, Motivation and Innovation

Teaching The Caterpillar to Fly – Thoughts on Change – Part One

This is Part One of a five-part post on issues surrounding people and performance and managing and leading change. Included are some ideas about:

  • managing change and personal growth   
  • assisting change management initiatives
  • developing individual and organizational potential

“I have a microwave fireplace at home…
You can lay down in front of the fire all night in 8 minutes.”
(Steven Wright, comedian)

Sometimes we expect “microwave fireplace results” when it comes to improvement and change. But improvement is never fast; it depends on the creation and realization of new possibilities and outcomes and occurs with some amount of trial and error. Call it continuous continuous improvement — but more on that later.

Realize that everyone has unrealized potential and this unrealized organizational and individual potential can be coached and supported; most individuals need the support and coaching of others to be successful. And there can be any number of issues and difficulties involved with these changes.

In order to begin any improvement process, it is important to focus on

  • understanding and capturing ideas and possibilities
  • reformulating and restructuring those ideas into a usable form and
  • then transforming them into actions and behaviors.

The situation reminds me of a story:

Two caterpillars are chatting and a beautiful butterfly floats by.  One caterpillar turns to the other and says,“You’ll never get me up on one of those butterfly things!”

Before moving on, take a moment and consider the meanings of this story. There are some wheels within wheels herein and some important lessons on perspective, leadership and creativity. So STOP for a moment and consider the story again.

Okay. What you’re being asked to consider may seem similar to what John McEnroe said on losing to Tim Mayotte in a professional indoor tennis championship:

“This taught me a lesson, but I’m not sure what it is.”

I’ve told the caterpillar and butterfly story many times. And people always “get it” as I did when first reading it. But there is also a major paradox in the story as it applies to thinking, personal growth, managing change and leading performance improvement. I can state the learning lesson as:

It’s Dangerous to think you know “The Answer.” *

* That’s “The” as in “Duh.”

As I first developed and used this story about the caterpillars and the butterfly, I assumed that everyone understood that the joke / story was about resistance to change — a single simple answer: “You’ll Never Get me…” But when I asked a room full of people to talk about the meaning of the story in an Asian training session, I was shocked by their many answers, since most were not about my answer but their perceptions.

In asking people to discuss the joke over the past years, there have been many different responses and answers, including:

  • Caterpillars have no need to fly. They are well grounded!
  • Caterpillars can eat anything green and find food everywhere.
  • Butterflies are a stage beyond caterpillars.
  • Butterflies have to fly to get anywhere and caterpillars can crawl and climb.
  • We can attempt to resist and suffer the stress and difficulties.
  • We can choose to be active participants in change. Or not, maybe.
  • We go through stages of development and butterflies are one stage closer to death.
  • Risk avoidance is normal.
  • Change is often actively resisted.
  • Change is inevitable.
  • Caterpillars don’t like wings.
  • Caterpillars must hate flying since they don’t even try.
  • Caterpillars focus only on eating and survival.
  • Butterflies can get blown around by the wind, but caterpillars can drag their feet!
  • Metamorphosis is an uncontrollable process with an unclear result.
  • Metamorphosis is a dark, damp, confined place, so I’m scared!
  • It’s easier for butterflies to develop perspective than caterpillars.
  • You have to stop being a caterpillar in order to become a butterfly.
  • Change is not always a conscious decision. Change will occur, inevitably.
  • There is a need for vision and perspective — we’re all on a journey to somewhere.

and my favorite answer:

  • I’ll NEVER be a butterfly; My mother was a moth.

How many times do we self-limit our perceptions and our thinking because we “know the answer” and thus don’t even think about different possibilities? I find this to be a very common occurrence — and one most deserving of our personal reflection and analysis.

When people talk about this story of caterpillars and butterflies among themselves, a most remarkable thing usually happens: They discover that they share different perspectives and a diversity of ideas, which is common when people discuss things. And each has a unique perspective.

Yet most of us, when we know “The Answer,” will generally self-limit any consideration of other possibilities and limit our thinking.

The fact that we can generate other ideas is a most interesting outcome. All of us have the capability to generate ideas and possibilities. What we need is a simple tool and shared base of experience and common ground. Most would agree that being a butterfly is a “higher existence” than remaining a caterpillar.

The story also links to some key learning points on leading change and dis-un-empowering people, including:

  • Even though we often resist change and risk, change is often inevitable!
  • Change will occur and we can choose to be active participants and go with the flow – or we can attempt to resist and suffer the stresses.
  • Each of us goes through many stages of development, a process that occurs repeatedly over time.
  • It’s easier for butterflies to develop perspective on things than it is for caterpillars since they have a better viewpoint.
  • Caterpillars focus only on eating and survival. There is more to life than this.
  • What is needed is vision and overall perspective – we are all on a journey forward.
  • Having gone through a process of change may make the next cycle of change less threatening and somewhat easier.
  • We need to be engaged and involved in the process itself rather than feel imprisoned by our environment. Change cannot be done “to” us — forcing the action typically generates active resistance to the process.

Possibilities are endless! Choosing to change is a really important part of improvement. And we all have a bit of the butterfly within us.

Before moving on, consider the meanings of this story about resisting change and making choices. There are wheels within wheels herein and some important lessons on perspective, leadership and creativity. So please stop for a moment and consider the story again.

“One cannot become a butterfly by remaining a caterpillar.”

Change and personal growth is all about discovering the inevitability of change and the need for one to clarify a vision of the future.

We all have the need to change, since the world around us is changing. Accepting that change is inevitable, that the future is often unknown, and that change is simply one more stage in the continuous growing that we do as human beings is an applicable premise.

Understanding the basics of change and development is useful. Knowing that change is something we can choose to do is important. Knowing that change cannot be pushed but can be coached is helpful.

Be the Butterfly!

In later posts, we will talk about ideas for involving and engaging people in the change process, coaching and mentoring,

You can go to Part Two by clicking here


For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott Simmerman CPF, CPT is still managing partner of PMC

Scott is developer of the Square Wheels® images and the board game version of Lost Dutchman

Scott has presented his concepts in 47 countries and collaborates with consultants and trainers worldwide.

You can reach him at and you can see his profile at LinkedIn


Also published on Medium.


Dis-Un-Engagement – Improving Motivation and Facilitating Workplace Improvement


Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly – A poem about a Work in Progress

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