I quote from something a dear friend sent me. “In Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel, The Sun Also Rises, a character is asked how he went bankrupt. “In two ways,” he answers. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
A famous sentence, one that aptly describes how businesses go down. We get fixated on the sudden events that occur at the end of the trajectory—banks calling in their loans, creditors going to court, unpaid salaries, and the like. It all feels dramatic and sudden, and we look for answers in the here and now.
But those answers can only be found way back.
Businesses are not the only things that go wrong following this gradually-then-suddenly trajectory. Many other human endeavours follow the same path. There is much anxiety and hand-wringing when we suffer an avoidable medical event, for example, but our lifestyle choices over many years prior often go unremarked.
When human constructs like bridges or dams fail, or cities are flooded, it is not just because of sudden and unusual rain events. There is a gradual negligence afoot—years and years of wear and tear, maintenance failures, or unattended corrosion.
Because we looked away from that work, we are forced to look on in horror when the final collapse happens.” End of quote
In Systems Theory we speak about the Causal and Compensating Loops. When you start an initiative, no matter what and no matter how well intentioned it may be, a process that works to neutralize it also starts. Usually, it goes undetected until it gains sufficient momentum to reverse the initiative that had been started. These are the Causal and Compensating Loops. Therefore, if you want any initiative to succeed you must keep an eye open for the Compensating Loop and act early to deal with it. Acting early means that what you need to do will be easier and less painful and so more likely to succeed. All change is painful. But if you detect the need to change early and act quickly, you can minimize the pain and give the initiative you started, a chance to succeed.
Early in my consulting career in 1983/4, I was part of a consultant group hired to design and conduct an Orientation Workshop for a large engineering manufacturing company in South India which had a strong traditional Tamil Brahmin culture with an all-male population. Thanks to the inception of a powerful lady promoter director into their Board, they decided to hire women engineers to address the gender imbalance. They hired fifty young women engineers from the premier engineering colleges in India, the IITs and RECs. Mercifully someone had the idea that before letting these young, highly energetic, and powerful women into the all-male organization, it may be a good idea to help the women understand the challenges that they were likely to face in working with older male colleagues. We did a 5-day residential program in Whitefield, Bangalore. The program went off very well and all seemed right with the world. Five years later, on a hunch, I decided to check what had happened to these women. To my horror, I discovered that 90% of them had left the company. That is when the theory of Causal and Compensating Loops hit home to me most vividly. The danger of gradual change which remains undetected until it is too late.
That’s also the theory of Seneca’s Cliff… it takes a long time to get to the top of the cliff and then comes the sudden drop to destruction. The problem is that after a certain point is crossed, reversal is almost impossible and going off the top is inevitable. That’s where I fear we have reached, in several countries that I am familiar with and globally. In the countries that I am thinking of, it is the apparently sudden appearance of majoritarianism, fascist politics, victimizing of a group to project them as a 5th column enemy from within, and divert the attention of the masses from all kinds of economic skullduggery to enrich the elite ruling class. This includes the passing of draconian laws to track, monitor and control people in the name of keeping them ‘safe’. Covid was a huge ‘blessing’ for such leaders who used it instantly to pass laws with popular support which couldn’t have seen the light of day in a normal period. The problem with all these is that once in place, they never go away, though the so-called threat itself may have gone. The media plays a huge role in enabling all this. Thanks to a gullible population addicted to screens, which can’t differentiate between the truth and concoction, and willing to follow the Pied Piper, the rest is easy.
But when you stop for a bit and look back at history you will find plenty of signs about where society was headed. You will find the signs not in cataclysmic events in high places but in daily dinner table conversations at home, in unintentional maybe even unconscious messages to children, in choices about who to be friends with, who to invite home, who is considered ‘safe’, respectable, or otherwise. You will find the signs in daily conversation in how certain people are referred to. You will find the signs most powerfully in jokes and humor, which highlights prejudice long before it is seen in public. A progression of that is when target groups start to mock themselves. Standup comedy is an early warning signal for those who can see. You will find the signs in the increasingly insular, chauvinistic, uni-culture nature of social gatherings, where the one who doesn’t fit in is unwelcome. You will find it in apologetic suffixes to statements like, ‘I am not saying that ‘they’ are all like this,’ or ‘Some of my best friends are Xians’ or ‘Not all Xians are XYZs but all XYZs are Xians.’ From here it gets to being normalized in public discourse by national leaders and we are well and truly on the slope. The question to ask is not, ‘How was I so blind that I didn’t see what was happening early enough to stop it,’ but ‘What is happening right now that I need to notice and stop so that we don’t have a catastrophe to deal with a decade later?’
To understand why this happens let me tell you the Parable of the Boiled Frog to illustrate what I mean by the danger of gradual change. If you take a nice, healthy, frog and drop it into a pot of hot water, it will instantly leap out. But if you take the same frog and put it in a pot of water at room temperature and allow it to get comfortable in it, then you light a fire under the pot and ‘gradually’ heat it, the frog will get used to the gradual rise in temperature until the temperature gets dangerously hot. But by then the frog, being a cold-blooded being, is too flaccid, maybe even paralyzed, and can’t move, even though it knows that its life is in danger. Pardon my saying that with so much authority though I have never been a frog, much less in such a predicament. This is my parable of the boiled frog. A disclaimer before we go further – please do not try this anywhere. There is or should be a law against cruelty to dumb frogs.
The parable is salutary of course for another reason because for a lot of people this is the story of their lives. They live unaware of the water heating up, until it is too late. As the unknown (to me) author in the quote above said so aptly, “Because we looked away from that work, we are forced to look on in horror when the final collapse happens.”
In my life of 67 years to date and 40 years in consulting, coaching, and mentoring, advising individuals, organizations, and governments, on matters related to leadership and human relations, the Parable of the Boiled Frog, appears to come true far more than I would have thought possible, given that in all cases I am talking to highly educated, intelligent people. But true it is, whether we like it or not. Extremely painful, and deeply tragic because it is totally avoidable. The solution is to constantly measure everything that is valuable to you. The key word is ‘constantly’. In the words of Mikel Harry of Motorola, the co-developer of Six Sigma Methodology to measure quality, “If you want to see what people value, see what they measure.” I want to use Six Sigma especially because it takes measurement to a different level. To illustrate, if you have a process that is 99% right, most people will be satisfied with it. But 99% is 10,000 mistakes per million. Six Sigma is 3.4 mistakes per million. When you are flying at 30,000 feet, you don’t want to know that the engines of your plane were built in a factory that worked on 99% right standard. The benefit of frequent measurement and measuring small changes is that corrections are easier and less painful to make.
Taking this into the realm of so-called real life, consider marriages and raising children as a classic example of the opposite of the philosophy of Six Sigma and behold its catastrophic results all around us in society. I have seen so many people behaving in toxic ways about whom I think, ‘How I wish their parents had invested in a jumbo-size box of condoms.’ In case you are laughing, that was not a joke. Likewise for marriages where you seriously want to say to the individual, ‘Please swear on whatever you consider holy and hope to die if you break that oath, that you will never, ever, even consider getting married. You were created to live alone and die alone. Fulfill the purpose of your creation and don’t ruin someone else’s life.’ I know that is not very polite and so I haven’t said this to anyone, YET. But there are plenty of people who I would love to say it to. Having said that I remind myself not to be someone who others may want to say this to. Most marriages don’t break up because of one event, but because of many small things which you wouldn’t even call ‘events’, but which pile up until the proverbial camel’s back breaks. Likewise raising evil people. Remember that every evil person that walks the earth today was a baby, a toddler, and an adolescent, before he or she became an adult. It is salutary to think of all that happened during that time or to put it more accurately, all that could have been done to ensure that the adult would be an ethical, moral, responsible, compassionate, and kind person. That is not too much to ask, right? Sadly, that doesn’t happen. The fault, always and invariably, is that of lazy or absent parenting.
In my consulting practice, working with family businesses, I have seen several instances of acrimonious breakups of the family business with siblings at each other’s throats in the law courts, benefiting nobody except the attorneys on both sides, who keep fires burning as long as they can. I say to them that this breakup is not happening today; it is what the parents allowed and encouraged in the nursery when the litigants were two and three years old. When one 2-year-old refuses to share a toy, how many parents say, ‘Don’t worry, I will get you your own.’ That is the seed. The fruit takes forty years to come, but it surely does. Only the location changes from the nursery to the law court. But it is the same story, and a healthy, profitable business is dismembered like a carcass.
I have seen the same story with career progression. People talk about their dreams of career advancement. But when I ask them, ‘What book are you reading now?’ they tell me, ‘I am so busy, there is no time to read.’ I ask them, ‘What course did you attend during your vacation?’ they look at me as if I am crazy, as if to say, ‘Vacation? Course? Are you insane?’ I say silently, ‘Wait until the next downsizing of your company. Then you will know who was insane.’ It is the daily small improvements to yourself that make major impacts in life. The Law of Entropy fits life like a glove. You must run to stay in the same place. And you must run like your tail is on fire to progress. If you don’t invest in your growth, you won’t grow. But the market grows, customer needs grow, technology grows, demands grow, everything around you grows, and one day you discover that you don’t fit any longer. Worse, your employer discovers that, and you become the proud owner of a Pink Slip. Remember that didn’t happen then. Your Pink Slip was written the first time you passed up an opportunity to learn. It was just sent to you on the day you received it. What is sad is not the Pink Slip but that it was you who wrote it for yourself.
I have held myself to the rule of constant measurement and continuous learning to my great benefit. I document all my output. I have mentors who I regularly consult and listen to very carefully. I invest in books and courses and try to learn constantly. The result in only one aspect of my life, business consulting, is that on the rare occasion when someone says to me, ‘But so-and-so charges less than you do,’ I reply, ‘Here is what I learnt in the last five years (list of books, courses, and output). Please ask for this from the other consultant and decide who is good for you.’ I have never had a client who said, ‘The consultant’s investment in themselves is not important for us.’ Investing in yourself gives the client confidence in your ability to help them. That is a daily, small event, affair. It is not a PhD, but a book, a course, a serious conversation with notes. It is time spent daily in reflection, introspection, and conceptualization of learning, once again all documented. Believe me, if you didn’t document it, you lost it. There are no exceptions to this rule. You learn only what you document. It all adds up. Every smile. Every letter you wrote or call you made asking how someone was, when you didn’t need to. Every kindness which you may have considered small, but which made a world of difference to its recipient. Every minute you spent reading, reflecting, recording. In short, everything that you were not pressured to do but you did because you considered it to be important for your development, adds up. The day when the scale tips in your favor may surprise you and others, but there is nothing surprising at all in it. Every grain goes towards reaching the critical weight that is needed to tip the scale. All power to you if you added the grains. And time to wake up and start adding the grains if you have been sleeping.
Success is not magic, nor miracle. Success is systematic daily effort.