FrogYou likely have heard the parable of the boiled frog – if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out.  If you put the frog in cold water and gradually heat the water to boiling, you will cook the frog.  It’s a metaphor for the need to recognize gradual processes and the effect they can have.

It’s a lovely metaphor – and there’s even some science – from the 19th century – that supports the idea that gradually heating the water results in a dead frog.  However, dropping a frog into boiling water results in a dead frog immediately.

But frogs are dumb – they can’t think only react.  Humans are so much smarter and we can recognize trends as they are happening.  Only we don’t.

For example, how much weight gain would you have if you ate one chocolate chip cookie each day?  In ten years you would have gained between 6-10 pounds everything else being the same.

But it’s just one chocolate chip cookie – unfortunately, if you consume even one calorie extra each day, your body has to put it somewhere – as fat.  Which can cause problems if you accumulate too much – heart disease, stoke, and other ills.

First of all, we rationalize our actions – I’ll take the stairs instead of the elevator tomorrow, I’ll eat a salad for dinner, or I’ve got a high metabolism.  But they are just rationalizations.  The bill is always paid – at some point in time.

Second, we are geared to focusing on the urgent and the immediate.  If we are not going to experience the consequences of our actions NOW – then we can worry about them tomorrow.  But tomorrow never arrives – because it is today when it does.  So tomorrow becomes that convenient place in time where we will act decisively without having to act at all.

But the most serious problems are exactly those that are gradual in their formation.  A single frog is not a problem, but a neighborhood full of frogs makes life intolerable.  And that neighborhood of frogs came from one frog.

Which is why you need to learn what’s the canary in the coal mine for your situation.

Coal miners faced the danger of gases with no smell to them displacing the oxygen and causing the miners to suffocate.  So they carried canaries down into the mines with them because the canary would faint before they did.  If the canary fainted, they knew to get out.

This is the situation with climate change now.  What’s the canary – the polar bear not having enough sea ice?  Flowers growing farther and farther north from where they had been growing?  Sea water swallowing islands that people have lived on for thousands of years?  Drought?  Stronger storms?

But this also demonstrates the fundamental problem with gradual processes.  When they first start, they don’t appear to be problems.  See lesson #1 from 11 Leadership Lessons from Godzilla.  There are so many reasons that could explain what’s happening, how do you choose which is the real cause?  Because it’s only by addressing the real cause that you can deal effectively with the problem.

There’s no simple answer – there’s only hard, often boring work that needs to be done.  But it’s easier to just sit in the water as the temperature rises.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.