The parable of the boiled frog
May 14, 2012 6 Comments
Peter Senge wrote 20 years ago about the parable of the boiled frog. If you place a frog in a shallow pan of boiling water it will immediately try and jump out. But if you place the frog in warm water, and don’t scare him, he’ll stay put. If the heat was gradually turned up, the frog would stay in the pan, until it’s too late and he’s unable to climb out. The imagery is somewhat gruesome but the lesson is clear. Like the frog, our internal apparatus for sensing threats to survival is geared to sudden changes, not to slow, gradual changes.
Those of us involved in leadership and organisational development would do well to pay attention to our disquiet: it is often an early warning sign. I’ve been noticing my own unease this past week as I’ve been preparing thoughts for a middle management development for a global company. Are we willing to wake up to the bigger picture, to the threats and opportunities we sense around us, or is the lull of the warm water just too tempting?
Here are five issues to which we should pay more attention:
1. Impact of the recession. This is likely to result in a familiar, but not inevitable, pattern described by Barry Oshry: overwhelmed Tops sucking up yet more responsibility from others; increased fractionation of the Middle with associated personal and system dis-integration; heightened vulnerability at the Bottom with Bottoms blaming Middles and Tops. So, one possibility is increased polarisation and conflict. However, we know from complexity science that at times of great turbulence the system can break down or break through to a new state of order. We are in, what Robert Kegan describes, as a zone of ‘optimal conflict’. Optimal conflict is characterised by four conditions: the persistent experience of some dilemma, perfectly designed to cause us to feel the limits of our current way of knowing; in a sphere we care about; with sufficient support and challenge so we are neither overwhelmed by it, nor able to escape or diffuse it. Our current situation could also be a point of breakthrough if we have the courage to engage with these issues and then the insight to judge how best to act.
2. Loss of trust in leaders and organisations. Many people have lost faith in Top leaders and organisations more generally. Too many positional leaders have abused their authority (bloated unfair rewards, corruption, abuse of children in the case of churches) and this has infected the trust we have in all leaders, resulting in a generalised cynicism of those with positional authority. People also know from their own experience that many promises made by Tops cannot be honoured and in that sense were not made in good faith. There is much denial of the fact that no one is in control: Marv Weisbord comments that corporate “destinies are entwined in a maelstrom of markets, technology and world events”. Tops make promises about the longevity of changes, ignoring the fact that their tenure is likely to be short and the next sets of Tops will likely sweep away in months the changes from the previous lot. This climate of cynicism affects anyone in a position of authority: Top, Middle and Bottom. We need to acknowledge where we are, if we want to make progress.
3. Unlearning our taken-for-granted assumptions about ‘organisations’/organising. Without a basic shift in thinking all our strategies and activities around leadership and organisational development may just be froth on the sea, quick to disappear and of no substance. Gregory Bateson, the biologist and anthropologist, said 40 years ago “the source of all our problems today comes from the gap between how we think and how nature works.” In practice, many of us still operate, and our programmes and interventions are designed, as if organisations (and the world) operated as a predictable machine. In fact, organisations are a continuous interplay between formal designed structures and informal human networks. These networks take little account of the boundaries of the legal entities we call ‘organisations’. We would do well to acquaint ourselves much better with complexity science, ecology and the science of living systems and revisit our taken-for-granted governing ideas around organising based on control, prediction, consistency and measurement.
4. Illegitimacy of the current capitalist model and unresolved questions of social justice. No less an institutional figure than Michael Porter (the guru of corporate strategy) wrote in the Harvard Business Review last year about rethinking capitalism: “Companies are widely perceived to be prospering at the expense of the broader community”. He went on to set out his big idea on ‘Shared Value’ explaining that “not all profits are equal… profits involving a social purpose represent a higher form of capitalism.” I quote Porter because he is very much an insider, a Demi-God in the world of global business schools. Dee Hock, founder of VISA, in its early days one of the most radical companies in terms of its design and philosophy, commented that the “highest levels of management in all organisations, commercial, political, social, and educational, are now formed of an interchangeable, cognitive elite with immense self-interest in preserving existing forms of organisation and the ever-increasing concentration of power and wealth they bring”. In the last few weeks in the UK, shareholders are beginning to find a voice to protest about the continuing level of lucrative pay and share deals awarded to Top Directors despite poor company performance. At the same time a dramatic protest by cleaners at the Government Department of Work & Pensions, highlighted that the minimum wage is not a living wage. Inequality is real and growing and our warms words about ‘partnership’ and ’collaboration’ will be empty unless we engage with the reality of our social and political context.
5. Loss of purpose, principles and values. In terms of the recessions in Western economies Meg Wheatley commented: “This isn’t a financial crisis. It’s a global crisis created by a world organised on economic values”. What is the purpose, principles and values that are worthy of our commitment and which would animate and create the organising structure around which people can mobilise? “The strength and reality of every organisation lies in the sense of community of the people who are attracted to it, its success has enormously more to do with clarity of shared purpose, common principles and strength of belief in them, than with money, material assets or management practices, important as they maybe” (Dee Hock). At a societal level, the question of purpose and values is just as important. In the UK, an important public debate will be held next week on the site of the Occupy Movement, St Paul’s Cathedral, addressing the question: What Money Can’t Buy:The Moral Limits of Markets
We are in a complex situation. None of us are innocent, standing outside the systems of which we are critical. The choice is: do we see ourselves as players or victims? If we wake up to the threats that are around us, find the courage to speak and to play our part alongside others, we can make a difference.
Back to my middle management programme…