The old tale of ‘Boiling Frogs’ says that there are too basic ways to boil a frog. One, the frog is thrown into a boiling water pan. The frog jumps out one millisecond later. Close to first degree burns, but alive. And learns the lesson.
The second way is to put the frog in a pan with cold water, turn on the heat, slowly, and wait. The frog, the tale says, likes the warm bath at first, the cosiness of that lake around him, the delight of the warm feeling. So delighted the frog is that does not notice that the water gets warmer and warmer. And warmer. And hot and boiling. The rest is a funeral.
At some point of the heating up, the frog would have tried to resist and adapt. Maybe. After a tipping point, the original adaptation becomes a liability.
Welcome to the Slow Cooking School of Management. We sometimes don’t realize that adaptation and robustness and resilience may provide some sort of blindness. By the time we realize, it may be too late. The (management) pan may be full of warm cosy water. We don’t notice the heat. We are cooked. Some people are cooked in the 30s, some in their 40s, some later. All of them may have been very adaptive and resilient.
Most slow cooking is self-inflicted. We need organizational thermometers that tell us the changes in temperature. Waiting for the 100 degrees Celsius to turn up does not seem like a great strategy.
In the land of prone-to-warm-water frogs, crisis is welcome. Stress to the system must be welcome. Reboot mechanisms as well. Nassim Taleb (I keep quoting) would say that then opposite to fragile is not robust or resilient. Actually he could not find a word, so he created ‘antifragile’: ‘things that gain from disorder’, as the subtitle of his book says. In his typical Taleb way he also says: ‘The fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile grows from disorder, and the robust doesn’t care too much’. That is the problem with robustness, including a ‘robust culture’; it turns us blind, complacent and insensitive.
Switching from frogs to cultures, for me, one of then most useful organizational thermometers are the Broken Windows that I have written about. These are the relatively innocent failures in compliance, the not too strident signs of weak accountability, not life or death promises that are not kept, the windows a bit broke n that nobody fixes. These not so tragic, not so visible, not so disturbing signs of organizational graffiti and broken windows, flood the organization, one day at a time, without anybody bothering so much because, as we say, in the great scheme of things, these are not a big thing.
But these are degrees up and up in the thermometer. Actually, they are telling us that the patient has temperature. I know, I know, not sweating and shivering yet, so a little analgesic and a chicken soup may be just ok. Watch the funeral.
Apocalyptic? Tell that to the warmer frog.
We must have our own non negotiable. Still today I get pushed back on this language when we talk about ‘non negotiable behaviours’ in cultural programmes powered by Viral Change™ . Well, I’ll keep the language. It’s a sort of thermometer. I will not compromise with fevers.