Stop boiling frogs, start fostering creative conflict

In the late 90s I worked in the beer business with a sister company in spirits – Allied Domecq. It’s quite hard to believe now, but the spirits market was in terminal decline. As aging whiskey, brandy and gin drinkers kicked the bucket, no one came in to replace them. Sitting in arm chairs with a tumbler a third filled with a throat-burning liquid, or a schooner of dry sherry had no appeal to younger generations. However, those products were highly profitable, so the gentle inexorable decline didn’t seem to matter that much to anyone.

A new management development programme created the opportunity for one person to step back and spot the issue. And he alerted the business using the parable of the boiled frog in his report back to the business. Describing a situation where a frog happily swims in a pan of water that’s gently warmed-up. It gradually drifts off to sleep in the lovely warm water, so it isn’t conscious as the water reaches boiling point. The frog dies, blissfully unaware. However, any attempt to put a frog straight into boiling water will fail. It jumps straight out when the tips of its toes touch the water.

Allied Domecq listened and then investment in new teams focused on product innovation targeting young drinkers. The outcome is visible today in every bar, pub and supermarket. And spirit companies have a clear future.

I believe that most companies have a boiling frog situation in the guise of the comfort of working in teams and meeting groups made up of people who are too similar. This is the characteristic of organisations that persist in believing they can thrive in competitive markets while drawing on only a limited portion of the talent pool.

In CIPD’s June 2018 report ‘Diversity and Inclusion at Work’ the authors point out that cultural diversity in teams (different backgrounds, different values etc) is associated with ‘higher creativity and satisfaction’ because different ideas and perspectives come up against each other. Conversely, teams which are said to be convergent have less stimulus for the creative conflict which drives new thinking, new processes, new products etc. In it’s place will be outcomes which are improvements on the status quo. Cost savings and efficiencies.

Efficiency is important as it enhances the bottom line. But without maintaining or growing top line sales through innovative thinking all you are doing is boiling a frog very slowly.

Reflecting on the teams that operate from boardroom to basement in your organisation, how many are made up of people with similar outlooks, characteristics – skills, knowledge and attitudes, gender, colour, ethnicity? And how long have these teams looked like this? Do they just deliver incremental progress? When was the last time a big idea emerged?

But adapting teams by bringing in difference isn’t a straight line to step-change.

The first issue is that organisations dominated by homogenous teams will struggle to see, hear and value suitable talent, if it that talent doesn’t look like them. This is something psychologists call the homosocial reproductive tendency. So, efforts must be very conscious and deliberate, starting with the end in mind. And, these teams need to be reassured that the discomfort they may experience over the short-term will make them higher performing, with the range of personal benefits that will come to pass as a result, if they hang-on in there.

The second issue is positively managing the conflict itself. This means helping people recognise that different views aren’t a threat, they are a change, and they need to be listened to and considered carefully if the organisation and its employees are to thrive.

Learning, after all, is fundamental to growth.

Results from The 2018 Women’s Sat Nav to Success Survey are coming soon, and will present chilling data on the inability to see, hear and value talent when that talent – in this case - is female.

Contact survey2018@womenssatnav.co.uk to register for your report or to arrange a presentation of the findings and their implications for organisation and employee success.