The Parable of the Boiled Frog

Maladaptation to gradually building threats to survival is so pervasive in systems studies of corporate failure that it has given rise to the parable of the "boiled frog". If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to scramble out. But if you place the frog in room temperature water, and don't scare him, he'll stay put. Now, if the pot sits on a heat source, and if you gradually turn up the temperature, something very interesting happens. As the temperature rises from 70 to 80 degrees F., the frog will do nothing. In fact, he will show every sign of enjoying himself. As the temperature gradually increases, the frog will become groggier and groggier, until he is unable to climb out of the pot. Though there is nothing restraining him, the frog will sit there and boil. Why? Because the frog's internal apparatus for sensing threats to survival is geared to sudden changes in his environment, not to slow, gradual changes.

Something similar happened to the American automobile industry. In the 1960's, it dominated North American production. That began to change very gradually. Certainly, Detroit's Big Three did not see Japan as a threat to their survival in 1962, when the Japanese share of the U.S. Market was below 4 percent. Nor in 1967, when it was less than 10 percent. Nor in 1974, when it was under 15 percent. By the time the Big Three began to look critically at its own practices and core assumptions, it was the early 1980's, and the Japanese share of the American market had risen to 21.3 percent. By 1989, the Japanese share was approaching 30 percent, and the American auto industry could account for only about 60 percent of the cars sold in the U.S. It is still not clear whether this particular frog will have the strength to pull itself out of the hot water.

Learning to see slow, gradual processes requires slowing down our frenetic pace and paying attention to the subtle as well as the dramatic. If you sit and look into a tidepool, initially you won't see much of anything going on. However, if you watch long enough, after about ten minutes the tidepool will suddenly come to life. The world of beautiful creatures is always there, but moving a bit too slowly to be seen at first. The problem is our minds are so locked in one frequency, it's as if we can only see at 78 rpm; we can't see anything at 33 1/3. We will not avoid the fate of the frog until we learn to slow down and see the gradual processes that often pose the greatest threats.

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