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Pay attention to slow trends as well as sudden changes

frogIt is said that if you put a frog into a container of boiling water, it will leap out right away to escape the danger.  But, if you put a frog in a pot filled with cool water and then gradually heat it up until the water starts boiling, the frog will not become aware of the threat until it is too late.  Apparently, the frog’s survival instincts are geared towards detecting sudden changes, not gradual ones.

Cool story!  But it turns out that there’s no factual basis to it.  In fact, in 2002, Dr. Victor Hutchison (whose research interests include “the physiological ecology of thermal relations of amphibians and reptiles to include determinations of the factors which influence lethal temperatures, critical thermal maxima and minima, thermal selection, and thermoregulatory behavior”!) proved that this tale is just a myth.  As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will attempt to escape the heated water and will jump out if it is able to.

Nevertheless, true or not, this parable offers a lesson to leaders everywhere.  It illustrates the importance of not only paying attention to obvious threats but also to more slowly developing ones.  Even if the frog knows better than to hang around while the temperature is rising, sometimes leaders don’t.  Every now and then, we get so focused on a certain course of action that we ignore the telltale signs around us — rumblings of discontent from our staff, pointed questions or contrary advice from above, complaints from our customers or internal clients.

Here are a few examples:

  1. A slight decrease in the annual customer satisfaction scores is not necessarily something to panic about, but what if it’s a declining trend over a three year period?
  2. If an employee makes a billing error one month, it’s likely just an error, but what if it’s been three significant errors over six months?
  3. A single customer complaint about one of your service agents is likely an aberration, but complaints from four customers is an indication of a more serious issue.

Truth is, it’s just as important to pay heed to slowly-shifting trends around us as it is to the sudden changes.  When an issue starts to heat up, it may be worth pausing to evaluate whether things are coming to a slow boil.  What examples do you have of situations where the trend is likely indicative of a more serious problem?  What do you watch for?  Please share.

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