Why we don't cook frogs slowly and other thoughts on change

In the film An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore relays the story of a frog that jumps into a pot of lukewarm water. We are told that if a frog jumps into a pot of boiling water, it will hop straight back out again, but the frog in the lukewarm water will stay there, even as the temperature rises. The frog's survival depends upon the presence of a sympathetic rescue party. 

It is a cinematic moment that has the desired effect. It is one of the moments from the film that the audience remembers long after the credits roll. I have often thought about how this metaphor applies to change and particularly the way that change operates in schools.

For this purpose, the story requires a small change. The frog has not happened to land in the pot by accident, it has been very deliberately placed in the pot, the pot is full of stock, and our goal is to transform the hapless amphibian into a tasty dish of cuisse de grenouilles (frogs legs). The frog goes in, the burner is lit, now we wait and consider which wine will make the perfect accompaniment. As the water warms the delightful aroma of gently cooking frog fills the room and the small party of diners assembled for the feast contemplate their choice of condiments.


This scenario is more like what happens when we are introducing a change. The process is initiated by deliberate and planned action inspired by a sensitivity to the need for a change. We have in mind a desired change, and we may even have a rough idea of how we might get there. At the beginning of our endeavour, there is almost always a degree of apprehension. Experience tells us that while everyone might want change, very few people want to change. Change is frightening and uncomfortable. We know that some people are going to embrace the change. They are either of the type that embraces, at least superficially, every change. Or the change is precisely what they have always wanted and so supporting the change is in their best interests. We know that some people will be ambivalent. Maybe they just don’t mind, or perhaps they have encountered so many changes in their time that they approach any new change with the belief that ‘this too shall pass’.

There will be those who find the change very uncomfortable. They will not agree with it, imagine it as the beginning of the end and a sure sign that management has lost all sense of direction. As the change progresses, they will shift their approach from sullen disquiet resistance to outright discontent.

Back to our culinary metaphor. As did our changemakers our cooks set out to achieve a particular purpose; a tasty and exotic meal (unless you are in France in which case it is a domestic classic or 'common as’). We knew that at least one of the dinner guests (froggy) would find the process more than a little uncomfortable. As the water warms, froggy moves from enjoying the warmth after a long spell in a bucket of ice water, to finding the temperature change quite disturbing. At this point, the polite thing to do would be to turn the burner all the way up and drown any feelings of guilt with a nice glass of something with too many bubbles.

Our change makers are facing a similar conundrum. They have initiated the change process and are beginning to notice that the anticipated discomfort is taking shape. What should they do?

Unfortunately, in too many cases they decide to slow down the process. The consensus is that a gradual change will achieve the same ends and give everyone the time they need to adjust. In the kitchen, this is equivalent of leaving the frog in the pot but turning down the burner. We are still cooking the frog but now as the temperature slowly climbs the poor little fellow develops a heightened sense of anxiety; the water is after all still getting warmer, or the change is still happening. In time our cooks and change makers notice this anxiety, and so the pace of the change and the cooking is again slowed. At this point, we are confronting a range of other problems. The change is not having the desired effect. The dinner guests are hungry and running out of champagne. The need for the change has only grown. If we don’t get something on the table soon, our guests will leave. The frog begins to smile.

After an extended soak in warm water, the frog is plucked from the pot and released back into the wild smelling oddly of onions and parsley. Our exotic dinner is replaced by home-delivered Pizza with a side of chips (not even french-fries). Our change effort is abandoned, and any future change efforts are put on hold for at least the foreseeable future. The status quo reigns supreme.


If we want to cook a frog, we need to accept that it will not end well for the frog. As Steve Jobs said of the role of leaders “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader - sell ice cream”. If we recognise that change brings with it a degree of discomfort, then when we are confronted by it, we need to find a way forward rather than beat a retreat. This does not imply that we push forward with no regard for those who are finding the change difficult. We do not turn away from empathy and understanding or move forward blindly paying no heed to those experiencing the change most immediately, but we also do not persist on the same route but at a continually slowing pace. We listen, we adapt, we empathise, we explore alternatives and build a shared understanding of how we can achieve our goals together. In the end, we might develop a vegan equivalent of cuisse de grenouilles and enjoy a lovely guilt-free meal.

By Nigel Coutts