Don’t worry. The boiling frog is alive and well. It thrives in meeting rooms and email chains of projects, big and small. Here’s how to stop it.
To halt any potential tears, I should make clear the boiling frog hypothesis is dead and no more frogs are boiled to say otherwise. It is now only a fable. Experiments as far back as inVictorian times – when biologists revelled in the torture of amphibians – proved as much.
Now it survives – and thrives – only as a metaphor for incremental skew – the jumping cousin of the butterfly effect.
Why a boiling frog?
So what is the hypothesis: It was once stated that a frog dumped in boiling water would jump out to stay alive. But if a frog were placed in tepid water and the water heated slowly, the frog wouldn’t move. It would be boiled to death because it would not appreciate the growing danger. Slow change hoodwinks the alert mechanisms.
What does that mean for me?
In terms of project management, the boiling frog metaphor refers to the impact of a string of small, almost imperceptible, changes push a project off course.
So, for example, a project to build a diet app becomes a project to build a food pricing app because, essentially, one thing leads to another.
On a personal level, a novel about vampires becomes a novel about Gothic architecture because of the build-up of nudges.
How does it come about?
The salvageable becomes the inevitable; the speculative becomes the presumed.
This is how it can happen. People in a project team receive information. They take this information as fixed. This may require a small adjustment for the information is not what they had expected.
The next person in the chain receives this adjusted information. It also is taken as fixed and agreed. The next person in the chain makes their slight adjustment. And so on.
Each change seems inconsequential, but collectively it can shift the whole direction of a project. In some cases, people end up justifying the opposite of what they had argued for at the outset because that’s what they built. The means justifies the ends.
Give me an example
Imagine a school fund raising fair. The target is £500 for a minibus. That’s it. People are delegated sectors. One has to do the food, another the entertainment etc. The project becomes mired in ego and organisational drift.
The head puts the PTA in charge; the PTA thinks its answerable to the head. A few key people bend the idea to their personal purposes. They want to showcase their skills, or wealth, or connections. Others react to this change of core purpose.
The mission becomes to put on the best fair ever. More capital is poured into setting up the stalls. Thousands of pounds for a celebrity to cut the ribbon. Someone wants to add a helter-skelter which needs greater regulation and monitoring.
Each person working – in good faith – to make the fair the best that it can be. The fair is a success, hundreds come along. Everyone’s happy. It’s a triumph. But it makes a huge loss. There will be no minibus. It became about the fair and everyone forgot the minibus.
Give me a simpler example
You turn off the main road to avoid the gas works. Then you turn off that road to avoid the school run. Next up, you turn off that road to avoid the slow bus. Each decision seems correct in the immediate circumstances. But you set out for Hull and now you’re in Halifax.
How does it happen?
- Lack of clear purpose: The project outcome should be measurable, obvious, disseminated and rigorously drilled into every project component. Write it on the wall in red ink. That’s the destination, folks..
- Siloed personnel: Denied a Bigger Picture, individuals will react on a small-scale. They will want to assist everyone by yielding ground. They may believe their on-the-hoof solutions will be embraced as works of creative genius.
- Ambiguity in the information stream: Precision creates precision, but, remember, junk in, junk out.
- Project Fear: No-one wants to be the killjoy who calls a halt to a failing project. Think of the Crossrail delay which was on time and on budget until, one day, it wasn’t. Executives admit they held out to the last minute because they thought they could make it work.
- Replanning: Soon it becomes easier to change the goal than undo all the alterations. The project was a success! (Just a different kind of success to the one we wanted.)
- Sunken costs: People become institutionalised in the project, forgetting they retain the power to step outside the system. You may hear, ‘We’ve come this far, might as well trudge to the end now.’
How to kill the boiling frog
- Leadership: A project manager must keep a fixed eye on the outcome and provide guide rails for alterations.
- Clear goals with varied approach routes: Flexibility is essential to allow for creative solutions because dogmatic rigidity can be another species of boiling frog.
- Accountability to the Bigger Picture: Everyone must be in the loop. They must be empowered. Their decisions must be informed by a wider responsibility to the team, the project and the goal.
- Open networks: Change is inevitable but not without consequence. Communication reduces misdirection and provides a guard against unintended consequences.
- The red flag: Everyone in the team should be able to raise the alarm and be heard without project champions throwing muffins across the room.
Can I get all that on a bumper sticker?
Don’t keep calm and carry on, keep calm but challenge everything
NB No frogs were harmed during the making of this article.