Reviving a boiled frog
Question: After a well-chronicled, 30-year decline into bankruptcy, General Motors is now profitable again and going public. What does it say about its former executives, directors and union leaders that such a large, complex organization could be revived in less than two years? What factor best explains why leaders don't take the hard but obvious decisions necessary to prevent an impending disaster?
There is a story about a frog placed in a pot of lukewarm water over a fire that gradually heated the water to boiling. Because the frog failed to notice the point at which the water became hot enough to kill it, it stayed in the pot and was cooked. The danger of organizational success is that, like the warm water, it can lull us into a comfortable complacency that dismisses the signals of threat.
It is so much easier for leaders to rally the troops in response to crisis, because the rationale for change--the "burning bridge"--is evident. But today our organizations are dealing with forces that are so dynamic and fast moving that to wait until there is proof of crisis is to respond far too late. The way that the accelerated pace of change drastically shortens response time was once explained to me in the following manner: If I were walking down the middle of a residential street and saw a car coming at me from a couple blocks away, there would be plenty of time to get to the sidewalk; but if I were in a jet plane heading for another jet plane traveling at the speed of sound, even two miles wouldn't be far enough away to react in time to avert a collision.
One of the most effective strategies to convince employees to change when times are good uses proactive problem-solving: "What are the future challenges that we need to begin preparing for today?" Then couples that with status-quo risk analysis: "What is the risk of trying to stay competitive in this dynamic business environment with the organizational status quo?" When these issues have been honestly addressed by management and employees, people in the organization can understand a basic reality--regardless of your current level of success, in volatile times the greatest risk of all is not to change.
Dealing with the human side of this isn't easy: It confronts the entire organization with the possibility that the very roles, actions and attitudes that are most responsible for current success will be insufficient, and perhaps even detrimental, to success in the future.
This takes a more complex and emotionally sensitive leadership strategy than leading the charge in times of crisis. But without this kind of leadership, we'll continue to resuscitate boiled frogs.
Carol Kinsey Goman
November 15, 2010; 1:11 PM ET
Category: Corporate leadership , Crisis leadership , Failures , Leadership weaknesses , Making mistakes , Managing Crises , Organizational Culture Save & Share:
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