According to consulting lore, corporate change all boils down to frogs.
In case you haven't heard it (and who hasn't? the frog story ranks number one on the change hit parade), Manfred Kets de Vries published the fable in his recent book, "Life and Death in the Executive Fast Lane":
"Take a pot of hot water and a frog. Throw the frog into the pot. What do you think will happen? The obvious, of course: the frog will jump out. Who likes hanging around in a pot of hot water? Now ... [t]ake a pot of cold water, put the frog in it, and place the pot on the stove. Turn on the heat. This time something different will occur. The frog, because of the incremental change in temperature, will not notice that it is slowly being boiled. Unfortunately, many organizations, as they grow, begin to resemble the boiled frog."
Fast Company's investigative team, the "Consultant Debunking Unit", put the frog story to the test.
First we spoke with national scientific authorities. According to Dr. George R. Zug, curator of reptiles and amphibians, the National Museum of Natural History, "Well that's, may I say, bullshit. If a frog had a means of getting out, it certainly would get out. And I cannot imagine that anything dropped in boiling water would not be scalded and die from the injuries."
Professor Doug Melton, Harvard University Biology Department, says, "If you put a frog in boiling water, it won't jump out. It will die. If you put it in cold water, it will jump before it gets hot — they don't sit still for you."
We then called on our Testing Laboratory to conduct an empirical test. Participating were Thomas Hout, vice president of the Boston Consulting Group and coauthor of "Competing Against Time"; and J. Debra Hofman, research associate at MIT's Center for Information Systems Research and coauthor of "Implementing Radical Change: Gradual Versus Rapid Pace."
We placed Frog A into a pot of cold water and applied moderate heat. At 4.20 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 24 centimeters. We then placed Frog B into a pot of lukewarm water and applied moderate heat. At 1.57 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 57 centimeters.
How did our expert interpret this triumph of science? "There are certain cases where gradual change is almost preferred," Hofman commented. "The change myth assumes a very narrow view of people. If frogs can do it, people definitely can."
A version of this article appeared in the November 1995 issue of Fast Company magazine.