The Leadership Challenge of Gradual Change

Are you familiar with the boiled frog analogy? If you place a live frog in a pan of boiling water, the frog will immediately jump out. Smart. Right? However, if you place a frog in a pan of room temperature water, and all other conditions are comfortable, it will settle in. And if all other conditions remain comfortable, or even increase in comfort (e.g. it doesn’t have to hunt for food, food is brought to it; etc.), but you turn up the heat just two degrees at a time, the frog will allow itself to be gradually cooked.

The moral of the story: Neglecting gradual change occurring under conditions of otherwise comfort and ease leads to death.

Don’t look now, but if you and your organization have grown accustomed to conditions of comfort and ease, or worse yet, if you have made it your goal to achieve a condition of comfort and ease, then your organization is already on a path to irrelevance and demise. Not if, but when.

It is easy to respond to dramatic change that is thrust upon you, and the kind of leadership to achieve successful results while in a state of crisis is an important kind of leadership to be certain.

But the more difficult leadership challenge is sensing and responding to gradual change. While gradual change is easy to see when looking back, it is difficult to discern when looking forward. Separating signal from noise — separating legitimate change from the constant flurry of management fads — is difficult. Plus, gradual change is really easy to ignore, and to rationalize away.

The problem with gradual change is that it is relentless and unforgiving. Seth Godin makes this point well in one of his blog posts:

You and your team have already given up on carrier pigeons, typewriters and probably, fax machines.

And the spreadsheet has totally changed not only your accounting, but much of your decision making. My guess is that your industry doesn’t use radio as its primary brand building tool, and you don’t heat the office with coal, either.

So, when will you abandon the employee review system you’ve had for thirty years? Or the meeting culture? Or the expensive, boring and not particularly effective training regime your HR team is stuck with?

Not if, but when.

Putting a date on it might make the transition go better.

Intentional action is the hallmark of a professional.

Sensing and responding to gradual change requires a different kind of strength of leadership.

Your job as a leader is to cultivate an organization that remains aroused to challenge and responds in ways that are highly resilient, ways that are highly reliable while also being highly adaptive to change. This requires agility in both your processes and in your culture; one without the other won’t work.

Interested in learning more about this type of leadership?

We’re agilityIRL. We’ve been where you are. We can help.

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