Problems That Arise Gradually or How to Boil a Frog
Problems generally don’t age well.
Over time, the underlying issues associated with them often get worse, sometimes reaching catastrophic proportions. Yet, many problems go unaddressed by leaders until just before the volcano is ready to blow. By that time, there is little to do but control for the damages and limit the casualties.
As a rule, leaders who fail to act against a problem or issue until it is too late are thought to be lolled into a state of complacency by the slow speed through which the challenge intensifies. This situation is so common it has its own animal apologue. Known as the boiling the frog syndrome, the premise is that gradualism can be disastrous.
The experiment goes like this: Place a frog into a pot of boiling water and it will immediately jump out to save itself from impending tragedy. But if the frog is put into tepid water that is slowly brought to a boil, the frog will fail to perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The frog becomes unwittingly complacent before it realizes the magnitude of the problem. By then, it is too late.
Whether the frog experiment is indeed true is not the point. The metaphor is powerful for its insight into why leaders too often neglect problems before they get out of hand. Threats and problems that arise gradually rather than suddenly are commonly missed by even the smartest of leaders. This underscores how taking your eye off the ball of gradual change can result in disastrous consequences.
There is no surefire way to prevent this syndrome.
The negative effects of a problem can mushroom slowly without warning or notice, especially for leaders busy with issues they know they must address. The best approach is to occasionally complete an inventory of the many problems and challenges that you face personally and professionally, even those that are small but troublesome. Just writing them down for review will often provide an insight into which problems might be expanding without much clamor.
Once you have a list of the many problems on your plate, both large and small, the next step is to ask yourself if any are gradually escalating.
Seeking out a third party to ask the same question about a given problem is often a good idea, as well. Resist the urge to immediately address a problem that is expanding. Keep an eye on it. Over a short period, decide if it deserves more of your attention or not. If you realize gradualism has been dulling your senses, give the problem the focus it deserves.
Best not to turn into a frog unless you can’t avoid it.
So true. It is remarkable how we as leaders can be oblivious to the red flags around us. Or in this case, the boiling water.
Re: Different metaphor. Years ago, I attended a talk by Morgan McCall. His talk was about Executive Derailment and he used the term "Slippery Slope". That is, it's easy at first to do something that goes against your values, just a little white lie, a little slip here or there. But pretty soon you find yourself making cuts that get you quickly too far down the slope and unable to recover. Not exactly the same as the 'gradualism' but maybe similar enough. The point I think is not to rest of your laurels and get too comfortable.