The boiled frog delusion is a commonly told story, but rarely do living systems learn from its message. If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately hop out. But if you carefully place the frog in a pot containing room-temperature water, and gradually raise the temperature of the water, the frog will not notice the temperature increase and will stay in the water even though he is free to jump out. The reason for this is that the frog’s internal mechanism for survival is geared to deal with sudden changes to his environment, not gradual ones. The same applies to our organizations. 1
In many ways, our organizations change dramatically and well when the environment shifts in radical ways. Think of how individuals and organizations in New York City demonstrated magnificent performance in the advent of the 9/11 terrorist attack, which was violent and sudden and dramatic.
However, creeping problems like slowly eroding market share, insidious environmental pollution, steady quality declines, and turnover by some of the key employees of an organization are often not noticed. The environment is turning up the heat slowly but surely on many of our organizations, but it is happening so gradually that we do not notice or take action to correct this trend.