Apparently if you drop a frog into hot water it will notice and jump out but if you put a frog in water at a comfortable temperature and then slowly heat it up it will not jump out – it does not notice the slowly rising temperature until it is too late – and it boils.
The metaphor is used to highlight the dangers of not being aware enough of our surroundings to notice when things are getting “hot” – which means we do not act in time to prevent a catastrophe.
There is another side to the boiled frog syndrome – and this when improvements are made incrementally by someone else and we do not notice those either. This is the same error of complacency and there is no positive feedback so the improvement investment fizzles out – without us noticing that either. This is a disadvantage of incremental improvement – we only notice the effect if we deliberately measure at intervals and compare present with past. Not many of us appear to have the foresight or fortitude to do that. We are the engineers of our own mediocrity.
There is an alternative though – it is called improvement-by-design. The difference from improvement-by-increments is that with design you deliberately plan to make a big beneficial change happen quickly – and you can do this by testing the design before implementing it so that you know it is feasible. When the change is made the big beneficial difference is noticed – WOW! – and everyone notices: supporters and cynics alike. Their responses are different though – the advocates are jubilant and the cynics are shocked. The cynics worldview is suddenly challenged – and the feeling is one of positive confusion. They say “Wow! That’s a miracle – how did you do that?”.
So when we understand enough to design a change then we should use improvement-by-design; and when we don’t understand enough we have no choice but to do use improvement-by-discovery.