Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Feel the Temperature of Change

You probably heard the story about the two frogs. One frog is dropped into a pot of boiling water and immediately jumps out. A second frog is dropped into a pot of lukewarm water, the water temperature is gradually increased, the frog stays put and eventually boils to death.

The difference between the two frogs can be instructive to those of us at risk of becoming victims of our own success. Of the two frogs, the one at greater risk is obviously the one who was unaware of the threatening, albeit gradual, changes occurring in his immediate environment. The frog who survived was the one who had enough “feel” for his environment to allow him to respond appropriately.

How sensitive a corporation is to its environment can be crucial to its long-term success. For example, how well does your company or division update its understanding of the immediate business environment? And, how well does your team “sense” the subtle and gradual changes in that environment, especially those that signal lasting change?

Sensitivity, more than precision or accuracy, may be what is most important. The frog that survived did not calibrate the exact temperature of the water. He leapt out because it was too hot. That was all he needed to know. When conditions are turbulent or in a period of rapid change, it may be more useful to get a general feel for the major factors than to worry about the precision of the environment analysis.

The president of Specialized Bicycle Components, Inc., Michael Sinyard, sensed the water boiling in the late 1970s. He began to notice how some enthusiasts were rigging up their bicycles to ride on mountain trails in Marin County, California, and Boulder, Colorado. In the subtle changes, he saw an opportunity, and was the first to capitalize on the mountain bike craze. He changed what as once a parts distribution company into the first and leading mountain bike company in the world. Being alert to the significance of subtle and early changes, and having a willingness to act even with an imprecise understanding, must be counted as essential factors that led to his success.

Karl Weick, in his book Sensemaking in Organizations, relates the story of a young Hungarian lieutenant who sends his men into the Swiss Alps on a reconnaissance mission. Shortly after they left, it began to snow and soon turned into a blizzard. The lieutenant feared he had sent his men into the icy wilderness to die. Three days later, however, the men returned. Relieved, the lieutenant asked where they had been and how they made their way back. They said they considered themselves lost and waited for their death. Then one of them found a map in his pocket, which calmed them down. They pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm, and then, with the map, they discovered their bearings and here they were. The lieutenant asked to see the map and had a good look at it. He discovered to his astonishment that it was not a map of the Alps at all. Instead, it was a map of the Pyrenees! Weick concludes, “This incident raises the intriguing possibility that when you are lost, any old map will do!”

Understanding the environment with precise accuracy was not necessary, but the decision to get moving was.

This article by Lanny Vincent originally appeared in Innovating Perspectives in June 1996. For other issues of our newsletter, please go to www.innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

© 2013 Vincent & Associates, Ltd. 

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