Teaching The Caterpillar to Fly

Ideas about managing change and personal growth,
including a simple training toolkit you can use with others.

by Scott J. Simmerman, Ph.D.
© Performance Management Company, 1997 - 2011

Read some poems on Butterflies and Transformations

Related to this, check out our Godzilla Meets Bambi animated cartoon on issues of motivation and leadership (Godzilla Meets Bambi

Steven Wright got it correct when it comes to change when he supposedly said,

"I have a microwave fireplace at home. You can lay down in front of the fire all night in eight minutes."

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 occurs with some amount of trial and error.

Generally, everyone has unrealized potential. Improvement is about understanding and capturing ideas and possibilities, reformulating and restructuring those ideas into a usable form and then transforming them into actions and behaviors. This unrealized organizational and individual potential can be coached and supported and individuals generally need the support and coaching of others in order to be successful. But there can be a number of issues and difficulties.

The situation reminds me of a story:

Two caterpillars are conversing and a beautiful butterfly floats by.

One caterpillar turns and says to the other,

"You'll never get me up on one of those butterfly things."

Before moving on, 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. It may seem like 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 I first read it. But there is also a major paradox in the story as it applies to personal growth, managing change, and leading performance improvement. I can state it as:

It's Dangerous to think you know "The Answer." *

* That's "The" pronounced like "Duh."


When I first heard this story about the caterpillars and the butterfly, I assumed that is was about resistance -- a single answer. And the first time I asked a room full of people to talk about the meaning of the story, I was shocked by their answers, since most were not about my answer but focused on other themes.

In asking people to discuss the joke, we've now collected many different responses and answers, including:

and my favorite answer:

How many times do we self-limit out perceptions and our thinking because we "know the answer" and thus don't even think about considering possibilities? I think this is a very common trait. And one deserving of 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.

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.

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

"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.

Now here is another paradox: YOU now have a framework that you can use with other people in the hope that they will understand this paradox of knowing the answer. A challenge is now given to you to find a possibility of sharing this with another group and broadening some thinking. That is the "training" part of this article -- you now have a new tool!

Let's continue to illustrate my thinking on change with a few facts and another story. In the past few years, I've learned a lot about Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) because I've been using this story in my training programs.


Thus, we've all now learned more about caterpillars and butterflies. Can we apply it to managing issues of change?

A while back, in a telephone conversation, Ted Forbes at The Darden School of Business asked me,
"Do you know about caterpillars and butterflies."

Being somewhat an expert on the subject, I of course said,


(Remember the paradox of knowing The Answer. Understand the Paradox?)

Ted then shared a great quote and training punch line and what makes a wonderful transition to issues of personal and organizational change.

He said:

"In the change from being a caterpillar
to becoming a butterfly,
you're nothing more than a yellow,
gooey sticky mess."

We need to deal with the gooey glop that most people find uncomfortable. But you have to metamorphose in order to change and that will involve going through the discomfort of being less and less a caterpillar while you are in the process of becoming a butterfly. Expect the transformation process to be somewhat uncomfortable and note that it takes some level of commitment. A key is understanding the process and perception of the realities of the change.

Our natural senses give us perceptual sensitivity that is incredible. Biologically, if your physical senses are working normally, you can:

Thus, we have the sensitivity to be extremely perceptive. But we typically block our sensitivity and it goes unrealized and underutilized, just like most of our other capabilities and potential.

Applied to personal growth and change, we will often limit ideas and possibilities for improvement because we already know the answers. And by limiting our thinking, we are limiting our possibilities and innovations as well as limiting the self-esteem that comes from successful accomplishment of change and the rewards of self-improvement.

Our beliefs make it difficult to see what is obvious, and that prevents us from improving.

Purchase a powerpoint training package, complete with presentation ideas, illustrations and worksheets, Click on the Change icon below:

If you would like to discuss a presentation on a theme similar to what is in this document, email Scott (click here) or call at 864-292-8700.

On rolling forward...

Another reality is that we do not have to constantly invent ideas and frameworks. On our journey forward, there are already others who may have done what we want to do or changed what we want to change. It is less about invention and more about discovery. With that in mind, let me share another metaphor and framework that others have found useful and that might be of benefit.

The framework is that of identifying the ideas that already exist and modeling the behavior of others. If we can identify the things that others are doing that might work for us, it might be a lot easier to make improvements. No sense reinventing the wheel and learning with all the mistakes if we can identify better ways that are proven.

To address some of these perceptual problems, let's use my most useful Square Wheels metaphor which is shown below.

I believe that most people work like the team shown below. Take a moment and look at the illustration.


So here they are, working hard and thumping along on Square Wheels. Note that the round wheels already exist in the wagon. They plod along like they have always done because these wheels do work.

"And after all, how would we know that we were making any progress if things didn't go 'Thump, Thump?'"

Some other common thinking about this illustration:

The Square Wheels can represent many things, including traditions and habits. Organizationally, they may represent processes and practices that do not work well or inter-departmental conflicts. They are the shared experiences of any organization that does not move smoothly forward. They increase costs of doing things and are inefficient and ineffective.

The person in the front pulls forward but also gets isolated from the wagon itself and may not feel the thumps and bumps nor hear the talk at the back. Communication is hard. The view from the back is not very motivating and the pushers are somewhat blind to the future. The wagon can do the job, but it's difficult to turn; changing direction is always hard.

Individually, these Square Wheels might represent the things we are so used to doing. They could just be our preferences in how we approach job or home activities. What we have been doing works, but there might be more effective ways of doing things. But it is sometimes hard to see this. After all, we are making progress!

And there is another paradox: We set our goals based on Square Wheels. And we can meet our goals if they are set this way! Lastly, over time, it becomes increasingly hard to stop and step back to look for new possibilities for doing things because we are working so hard to meet these goals!

And to illustrate the power of diversity of thinking like we did with the caterpillars and butterflies, in our use of this image over the past few years, we've captured almost 300 different thoughts and themes about this one illustration! Some additional key points include:

As we roll forward on our Square Wheels, we become accustomed to the Thump, Thump of our journey. Yet change and improvement tends to be inevitable for most of us and our organizations. The key is choice and perspective. The risk comes from not changing, from trying to maintain our status quo in the middle of a rapidly changing world.

But we've also learned that many organizations may operate, in reality, more like this: up to their axles in glop.


Lots of times, we work hard to make progress but we seem to be stuck in the ditch. And it is hard to really get a grip on what is happening to us.

In other words,

Things are this way because they got this way and unless things change,
things will continue to remain the same.

Recognize that in organizations, this "yellow gooey sticky mess" is similar to the politics, systems, processes, bureaucracy and general goop that commonly seems to get well-intentioned effort bogged down. The same things tend to occur in our family and personal lives, where our past experiences, expectations and cultural context seem to slow progress.

The wagon sinks up to its axles in the stuff, with the added reality of alligators and cement trucks - "It may not stay a yellow gooey sticky mess - it may be cement." Progress for organizations might get stuck to the degree that all progress stops and the organization loses its ability to survive. People think that they have no alternatives and little opportunity.

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation
and go to the grave with the song still in them."


Most people and most organizations tend to be bogged down and not really making much progress. People seem to naturally avoid the "yellow, sticky, gooey mess" of personal development and change and the discomfort of having to deal with these things.

Yet this gooey mess is also at the core of the reality of transformation and change.

There are people around us who are not bogged down and who are already doing things differently and better. In organizations, these exceptional performers work in the same environment but get much more accomplished than the average performers. These "Mud Managers" have different models and frameworks, behavioral, mental and strategic, that allow them to operate more effectively. They have made choices that are different than most.

The key is getting out of the ditch and up on the road.
It is about doing things the same way and expecting to make improvements.
It is about making different choices and transforming ourselves to match with our potential.

What is needed is vision, objectivity and perspective about where we stand and what is happening. And people do have choices:

"We could be standing at the top of the world instead of sinking further down in the mud."

Meatloaf, from his song, "All revved up and no place to go."

In the transformation of the caterpillar into the butterfly, the caterpillar constructs a cocoon and then undergoes an astounding transformational process, where the old "caterpillar" molecules actually chemically transform into "butterfly" molecules. They have to stop being caterpillars before they can possibly become butterflies -- and they actually become that yellow gooey sticky mess. But then they reassemble and become more than they were. They realize their inherent potential, something that all of us can do and something that most of us can support in others.

It involves accepting that we have potential...

"Even caterpillars can fly, if they just lighten up!"

Each of us must be sensitive to our surroundings and look for things we might choose to do differently. And our friends, associates, coaches and leaders should be looking for opportunities to involve and engage others in gaining perspective and objectivity about their behavior and their organizations to make improvements occur. We need to ask questions, challenge "whee-ality" and search for a never-ending supply of round wheels to implement.

Round wheels are also a paradox, since they already exist within the wagons and yet not all are usable, since some may not have rims or tubes. And we also have to actually stop making progress, momentarily, to discover and mount the wheels that will work for us. In organizations, implementing improvements also causes shifts in resource utilization and systems and processes; as the wagon moves forward faster, it causes other pressures in other operations.

How about the World of Work?

Organizationally, the overwhelming global response to Scott Adams' Dilbert cartoons indicates there exists a perception in business today that things do not work smoothly, that lots of mud exists and that few in leadership positions appear to be listening. And change and improvement are paramount needs. Many statistics from a wide range of sources support this Square Wheel reality of how things work:

KT's research also said that a little over half the hourly workers, and 40 percent of the managers, stated that frequent second-guessing of their decisions created a disincentive to spend a lot of time thinking up solutions to job-related problems.

There are wheely many problems at hand. It would seem that many wagon pushers feel the problems but few get the satisfaction from having things improved. But there is often little incentive for taking risks and making improvements. And it is not obvious that management is listening or willing to implement change.

Yet if managers would only take the time to discuss the possibilities for improvement, they could engage the energies of the people. It's not rocket science; it's about employee involvement focused on improving the task at hand. It should seem clear that the potential for improvement already exists, that there is a butterfly within each of us.

But many don't see their potential or the need for change. And managers don't often see their role as one of developing people. Yet the statistics consistently show that many feel that improvements could be made if managers would be more open and asking about the possibilities for improvement, the Square Wheels.

A few more key points:

Another learning point is that a focus on the things that work but don't work well takes clear objectivity and perspective. We must stop pushing and pulling in order to get far enough away to see possibilities for improvement. This is especially tough to do when one's goals and objectives don't allow for much development time.

By paying attention to the Square Wheels and then paying attention to the perceived possibilities for improvement, we create a bit of cognitive dissonance or discomfort caused by a gap between the perception of how things are and how they could be. By becoming less comfortable with the current processes and more aware of what might be done, we are more likely to initiate changes and improvements.

There are no bad people in companies; there are just good people doing clunky things in poor systems. When you put people into a poorly functioning process, there is little chance that they will perform well. We must address the operational and motivational systems to engage and motivate people. And the people who have hands on experience only need perspective and support.

People will often resist change because
they are comfortable with how things are, right now.
By identifying Square Wheels and Round Wheels,
we increase discomfort with the way things are and we make change more likely.

The problem with performance improvement and dis-un-empowerment is that many people don't "buy in to the program." Issues of trust and past history come into play. Many don't have a positive experience with attempts to make changes and improvements. And they do NOT get the support of others around them.

Let's illustrate with a test:

If you would take 2 minutes and consider identifying four or five of the key points in the following illustration, it would be interesting for you. You might also try it with someone else.

Trial and Error

The name of the cartoon is Trial and Error. And it is about how change and improvements occur. And if you are reading this without considering your reactions to the illustration, stop and please consider. If you are like most people in our workshops, you will generate a number of ideas about what is wrong and what they should have done and few about what they have done or are doing positively. The actual ratio of negative to positive is greater than 16 : 1 and we've tested this worldwide in all sorts of organizational cultures with very similar results.

Continuous continuous improvement is an ongoing process, is accomplished by trial and error and requires perspective and reflection. But too often, we are quick to put a "Blame Frame" on things and presume, with our leadership and expertise, that we would not have made such simple errors and omissions.


But horses will push carts when trained and motivated and there are always a great many potential ideas for improvement that can be implemented or modified. And, as Max DePree said:

"We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are."

A team approach generates the pooled, collective knowledge needed to solve real problems as well as provide the synergy and consensus as to where to generate results. Peer pressure can be focused on improvements if we can engage the team in a bit of reflection. Leadership provides the power and support to the implementation - but they must follow through and do something to recognize any improvements.

Quality is a people thing. A cross-functional team with a few skills, a mission and vision, and a bit of empowerment from management can generate the objectivity, perspective, collective knowledge and support to make real improvements in systems and processes, the root solution to the quality issue. And by getting people involved in the solution, they become equity owners of the process and we do things with them rather than to them.

Improving service quality is often an issue of leadership and recognition. Organizations have a real need to implement change. But the dynamics involved are complicated, and yet simple. You would all agree that motivation comes from people who take pride in results, with pride being a strong natural reinforcer.

Intrinsic motivation, then, looks like this:

Intrinsic Motivation

But the impact of putting the Blame Frame around less than perfect attempts to improve will stifle improvement. We get defensiveness or defense instead of change and we punish innovation while we demand improvement. And then we wonder why people do not feel self-actualized and intrinsically motivated.

Most people already have the round wheels in their grasp but, because of negative self-talk, constructive criticism, past performance evaluations focused on the negative and other typical work dynamics, we may not recognize them. Getting a test back in school, for example, was an experience of seeing all of our wrong answers highlighted and marked in red. This focus on the negative does not work to bring out the positive.

Performance coaching should address these issues and it sometimes does. There is a recognized need for objectivity and perspective combined with management support. But because of the focus on personal issues, politics and pettiness, many do not get feedback that focuses on the things we need to correct to improve our performance.

We can't really focus on developing human capital and achieving highest potential if we treat people in ways that diminish self-esteem and limit opportunities. The only way to achieve high performance is to engage the best energies of the people within the organization. And they already exist - the challenge is to unleash them from within. So, if we want people to fly, we've got to look at what influences their initiative and performance and get them involved and engaged.

We need to allow people to try new things and experiment with the systems and processes. By hooking things up in a new way, we can often generate that creative spark and innovation that will make a long-term fundamental improvement.

"Given the right circumstances, from no more than dreams, determination, and the liberty to try, quite ordinary people consistently do extraordinary things."

Dee Hock, founder of VISA International

"Never doubt that a small, committed group of people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Margaret Mead

God gives every bird his worm, but he does not throw it into the nest.

Swedish proverb

We don't have the answers. There are too many conflicting factors and situational issues. But one thing is obvious: 

Even caterpillars can fly if they would just lighten up!

So, let's focus on becoming more than what we are and becoming more like the butterfly. It is the diversity of thinking and perspective that gives us the opportunity to continue to see things in different ways. And we need to keep focused on the future. Each of us has the potential within us to fly, even though we all are different, so long as we continue to focus on how to lighten up.

Go to the people
Learn from them
Love them
Start with what they know
Build on what they have
But of the best leaders
When their task is accomplished
Their work is done
The people will remark:
"We have done it ourselves."

2000 Year Old Chinese Poem

"Blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves, for we shall never cease to be amused."

Author Unknown

"Don't let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy."

The Eagles, "Take It Easy"


So, I challenge each of you to look for ideas for improvement and make a difference in our wagons.
Your round wheels already exist.

For the Fun of It!

Scott J. Simmerman, Ph.D.

© Performance Management Company, 1997 - 2002. All rights reserved.
Square Wheels in a registered servicemark of Performance Management Company.


You'll find the "Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly" set up as well as lots of other perspectives for managing and leading change in individuals and organizations.

We sell a complete Bundle of presentation and handout materials suitable for training these concepts (click here for information)

Go to the Square Wheels Home Page

Go to Performance Management Company Home Page to see more about our products

If you would like to discuss a presentation on a theme similar to this, email Scott (click here) or call at 864-292-8700.

Dis-Un-Empowerment - A Definition and Explanation

This is a word I coined out of frustration and need. I define it as follows:

The act of removing perceived or actual roadblocks so that more things get done. Often, a task of management or someone perceived as a leader / one with influence. Or, a self-propelled personal improvement process.

Realize that it is next to impossible to "empower" someone, although the word is bandied about lots in the customer service improvement paradigms. (Read also Dilbert).

Alternatively, it is a LOT (read that "a great deal") easier to remove one's perceived roadblocks. Interestingly, people who get less done will have a longer list of these impediments than high-performing people.

You can provide opportunity and you can provide a supportive environment and guidelines for performance and behavior but you cannot give someone power to perform.

And most people because of past experiences and life history are generally not "empowered" – more often, they are un-empowered; they have had their power removed or constricted by others in the past or present. You will find it extraordinarily difficult to "empower" someone.

Most of us can do a much better job of dis-un-empowering ourselves by understanding the things that get in our way and managing them more effectively. We can also help others to better manage their roadblocks by providing them with perspective, coaching and support.

We CAN create opportunities for improvement. We CANNOT give them the Power to do things.

By the way, a complete and simple training program on managing roadblocks is available on our (www.SquareWheels.com) website. Access it by clicking here


Back to where you were before in "Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly"

Even More Factoids on Caterpillars, Moths and Butterflies

Some facts, ideas and information about caterpillars and moths to make you an expert in their behavior.

These are useful should you really want to set up yourself as an Expert so that when you tell the Ted Forbes story below, the group will respond with "Yes" when you say,

And Ted Forbes asked, "Do you know about caterpillars and butterflies," and I said: ____

Note: The group will generally answer, "Yes!"

when the CORRECT answer would of course be, "NO!" Yes limits discovery.


Moths first appeared on earth between 100 and 190 million years ago, based on fossilized evidence. Butterflies appeared only about 40 million years ago, probably alongside flowering plants.

There are 142,000+ species of moths and about 20,000 species of butterflies.

Some caterpillars eat as much as 27,000 times their body weight to support their lives as flying insects.

Butterflies and moths start out as eggs. These hatch into caterpillars, which go through a pupa or metamorphosis stage and then evolve into the winged version. The cycle can take as little as 3 weeks in the tropics and many months in colder climes. Cold climate species can hibernate for as long as 9 months.

Wax moths lay their eggs in beehives. Some moths lay their eggs underwater.

Most caterpillars may have 12 eyes, but they are primitive and can do little more than sense light and dark. Some butterflies have thousands of eyes and can see color and even ultraviolet light.

Most but not all butterflies have two pairs of wings and only the winged version can create new eggs upon mating. Some female have no wings. They mate, end to end, facing in different directions. Mating can last from 20 minutes to several hours. And they may fly together while doing so!

A caterpillar has a head and 13 body segments. There are only three pairs of real legs and five pairs of sucker-like prolegs or false legs at the back, with hooks for grabbing. It breathes through small holes on the segments.

In the pupa, there is little movement and no feeding as its body is liquefied and the materials in the cells are broken down and then completely reorganized. Because they cannot eat or drink, many pupae are waxy to reduce water loss.

Many caterpillars can produce silk, which they can use to avoid predators (by hanging from branches) and which they use for protection (a cocoon).

A few moths dig holes in the ground in which they hollow out and line with saliva and silk for their metamorphosis.

Caterpillars shed their skins. As the insect becomes too large for its body, the skin splits and the caterpillar crawls out wearing a new stretchy skin. This can happen several times before metamorphosis. Change is thus not unknown even to caterpillars!

The adult butterfly or moth does not grow, while the caterpillars increase in size many times. Goat moth caterpillars can take 3 or 4 years to mature!

Both butterflies and moths have smell, taste and touch as well as compound eyes for movement and color detection. Taste pads are on their feet and suck up fluid through their proboscis.

Moths have feathery antenna. Butterflies have the sensors on the end of a stalk. Moths generally have fuzzy bodies. Moths generally fly only at night, butterflies mostly in daylight. Both have 6 legs and 2 sets of wings. Butterflies fold up their wings when they are at rest; moths generally leave theirs unfolded.

The reason moths and other nocturnal insects circle your porch light is not because they crave the spotlight. Moths and insects use the moon to help them navigate in the dark. When an insect gets too close to a light, it does what nature tells it to do - it keeps its body aligned in relation to the light source. If the light source were the distant moon, the insect would fly straight. However, since the light is so close, the bug ends up flying in circles.

Butterflies will fight each other for control of a sunny spot! But they aren't tough enough to hurt each other.

Wings of both butterflies and moths are covered with scales that overlap like tiles on a roof. Some wings are almost clear because those moths have few scales.

The wings are hollow and fill with fluid to become stiff upon unfolding. Many will hang upside down to allow gravity to assist the stiffening process, which may take hours. The wing colors come on tiny scales that cover the surfaces.

The solitary Oak Leaf Miner has wings that span less than a quarter of an inch. The Two-Tailed Swallowtail Butterfly and Cecropia Moth have wingspans in excess of 6 inches and some tropical butterflies like the Queen Alexandra from New Guinea have spans of more than 11 inches.

The Monarch can fly at up to 20 miles per hour and can migrate more than 80 miles per day. Some Monarchs from Canada migrate to Mexico, a distance of more than 2000 miles.

The Tomato Hornworm Caterpillar becomes the Sphinx Moth or Hawkmoth. These are named because they can fly as fast as 35 miles per hour! Other Sphinx moths like the Bumblebee and Hummingbird moths can hover to drink nectar from flowers.

The caterpillar of a Hawaiian Euphithecia moth catches flies. Large Blue caterpillars eat ant larvae.

They also have ears - many moths are adapted to hear the high-pitched sound of bat echolocation and can often avoid capture. The antenna of some moths are 5 times longer than their wings.

Many moths have tremendously sensitive antenna that can sense minute quantities of the sexual pheromone, in the parts per billion quantities. Like some people we know, certain caterpillars like the Flannel Moth Caterpillar or the Crystalline Limacodid, have bristles that dispense toxic chemicals. Others use camouflage as a way of protecting themselves.

Small scales called androconia are modified to connect to scent glands to release pheromones into the air. A male emperor moth can detect a female about 6 miles (11 km) away.

The Zebra caterpillar becomes poisonous by eating poisonous foods and has sharp spines, while the butterfly smells very bad. The Puss moth caterpillar spits acid on predators.

The big green adult Luna Moths lack a mouth and actually live only on the energy stored during their larval stage -- their sole focus of their adult lives is reproduction. The male can sense a female as far as 5 miles away.

Most butterflies and moths can eat - they have a tubelike projection called a proboscis that is used to suck up liquids. This remains rolled up, normally.

The hawkmoth from Madagascar has a proboscis over 12 inches long.

Vampire or Calpe moths from Southeast Asia can penetrate skin and suck blood.

One moth native to South America have a foot-long proboscis that it uses to sip nectar from deep-throated flowers while the Asian vampire moth pierces the skin and drinks the blood of animals. Some moths feed on nothing other than the eye fluids of cattle or deer.


Purchase a powerpoint training package, complete with presentation ideas, illustrations and worksheets,
Click on the Change icon below:

If you would like to discuss a presentation on a theme similar to what is in this document,
email Scott (click here) or call at 864-292-8700.

Read some Poems on Butterflies and Transformations

back to where you were before in Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly

Go to the Square Wheels Home Page

Go to Performance Management Company Home Page to see more about our products

We sell a Bundle of powerpoint and pdf materials suitable for training these concepts (click here for information)

Most of these butterfly and moth pictures compliments of John Snyder at Furman University's Lepidoptera Exhibit. Thanks, John!

© Performance Management Company, 1998 - 2011