Frogs, Darwin and Surviving the Recession

The boss was sounding enthusiastic, usually a bad sign for the rest of the regional team. He’d just come back from another of those management seminars that our company saw fit to inflict upon us by proxy… the boss goes on the workshop and tells their people all about it upon their return.

This time it was about boiling frogs. It’s just possible that there may be one or two people out there today who haven’t heard the sad tale of how to make frog soup. So, briefly, it seems that if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water it will immediately sense the danger and jump out quickly. If, on the other hand, you put it into a pot of cold water and gradually heat the thing up, the frog fails to sense the temperature rise until it is too late.

“That’s very interesting” observed our Personnel Manager (for this was a long time ago… before HR), “but of what relevance is that to us here and now?”

Stunned by the unusual directness of the question… especially from ‘Personnel’… the boss explained that it was all about our being aware that pressure can build up on people without their recognising the fact. We, as good managers, needed to keep an eye on our people and notice the warning signs. I’m still not quite sure whether he intended us to avoid putting pressure on our people, build it up slowly and support when necessary or ‘hit them hard from the start to see how they reacted’. You never quite knew with Tom… but the boiling frog entered our vocabulary and folklore.

It’s probably right at this point to make the observation that I have nothing against frogs per se. I’d have to admit they wouldn’t make my ‘top 10 animals list’… that may be something do with, as a young boy, having sat down on a grassy bank one afternoon to feel a weird wriggly moist sensation. Looking down I found a small frog oozing its way from underneath my bare leg, it shook itself and hopped off to find somewhere safer to rest. So, not in my top 10…but I mean them no real ill, so long as they just stay away from me, Yuk!
So, why am I thinking about the frog right now?

Well, like most people I’m acutely conscious that things aren’t so easy ‘out there’ at the moment and that many of us are feeling the pressure in our own way. Hopefully most of us will recognise that pressure and find our own safety valve but others may not and will end up being boiled.

That’s also where Darwin comes in. This year we’re recognising the bicentenary of the birth of the man. Listening to some of the reports of how he went about his business you might question the methods but, I guess, it was a different time… standards and expectation were, well, different. Whether, or not, you accept the validity and truth of his work in the context of the development of life on earth I think that some of his observations can be usefully applied in the business environment.

Darwin talked about evolution by natural selection, which he summarised as having a number of characteristics or phases

Overproduction – favourable conditions allow a population to increase in size. Environmental pressures in time will limit the number that can survive. I’m reminded of the old Monty Python sketch about ‘Whicker Island’

The thrust of the sketch is that… “There are just too many Whickers” and “There just aren’t enough rich people left to interview”. Oversupply of interviewers combined with a limited demand for interviews consigned the ‘Whickers’ to a desert island and, ultimately, extinction.

There are obvious parallels in business. When times are good and people (and businesses) have plenty of disposable income they’re happy to spend on non-essentials or nice to have’s. When it gets tougher they start to question just how much they can afford to spend on fancy restaurants, designer clothes or new cars. Just how many personal, business and/or life coaches does the world really need and as for consultants…?

Competition– Darwin reckoned that, due to environmental pressures, the organisms within a population must compete with each other to survive. I go to a lot of business and networking events where there appears to be little or no competitive element. Indeed, I was a member of one such organisation that allows only one member from each profession or trade and restricts visitors whose activities might present internal competition. I understand and agree, in principle, with the thought process behind that rule… that it reduces the possibility of confusion between members and locks out competition, enhancing the perceived value of membership.

Where I probably struggle, though, is with the effect of protecting an individual member from competition. I think there’s a danger that it could make them complacent or lazy. Admittedly, for most people, this sort of group produces only a percentage of their total business (although a very high percentage for some) so you’d expect to see them fighting for the rest outside. Yet when I go to other networking groups and trade organisations, where people doing the same thing do come into contact, I rarely see that competitive element… most people are quite guarded and give little away. There’s little preening, sparring or ‘jockeying for position’. It’s all quite civilised and restrained; perhaps it’s the type of group I attend?

Competition doesn’t necessarily mean winners and losers, it can result in Win:Win. How many times in your career has a bit of constructive rivalry resulted in increased performance for everyone? It’s easier to achieve that sort of rivalry within a larger organisation but there’s no reason why fellow members of networking, or other groups, shouldn’t challenge each other once in a while. Returning to the animal kingdom… even in times of plenty, you don’t see the alpha male in a wolf pack or a pride of lions letting the others forget who’s in charge. He’ll always eat first and hand out a little discipline from time to time… just to remind the others of the pecking order and to keep himself fit and prepared for when times get tough.

Survival of the Fittest – Darwin suggested that the individuals who best adapt to the (changing) environment are the ones who will be most likely to survive. They possess variations that give them a selective advantage. We can see that quite easily in the animal world where the strongest will change their habits when forced to do so. The lead wolf knows that he needs the support of the pack to maintain cohesion and that it is easier to hunt with a pack than on his own. His primacy means that he will feed first but he will endeavour to ensure that all of the pack get at least a little food to keep them sufficiently strong to help in the hunt; though not, necessarily, to challenge his position! Only when food is so scarce that he is in real danger of starvation will he refuse food to the pack.

It’s perhaps not quite so grim for most of us but I believe there’s an argument that in bad times we need the ‘weaker’ members of profession or group. My thinking is, perhaps, a little simplistic but it’s along the lines of… a high visibility of a particular trade or industry suggests a continuing need for their services or product. Where the adaption to the environment comes into the equation is in the changes that the supplier (say, a life coach) may have made in their offering in order to survive the downturn. They’re still a life coach but they’re now concentrating upon helping people who have lost their jobs to identify new avenues of employment rather than focusing upon ‘taking their career to the next level’… whatever that means.

Survival of the fittest, in our context, is about understanding your market in changing times and adapting your proposition to meet the changed needs of the customer or client. When I studied marketing, quite a long time ago (in fact sometime around the last recession), we were taught about the 4 P’s – Product, Price, Place, Promotion. I suspect there’s probably a few more P’s to think about now, but asking yourself a few searching questions around those 4 areas is a pretty good start to understanding the current and future health of your business.

Link that to some real customer contact; I’m talking about asking your customers what they think about you, what they want from you and how much they’re prepared to pay for it and you’re well on the way to indentifying what you need to do to survive and grow, even in a difficult climate.

Finally, on adaption; there’s a great temptation to discount prices when customer budgets are tight. Trouble is that discounts, although usually calculated on the full price of the product or service, come straight off your bottom line. Supermarkets can get away with loss leaders and can buy-in low profit item at really low prices because they deal in bulk and they know that you’ll buy other more profitable items at the same time. Unless you’re able to reduce your supplier and/or operating costs in some way you’ll find yourself working for nothing!

Reproduction – Individuals that survive and reproduce can pass their traits onto their offspring. Whilst that’s clearly the case in evolutionary terms I’m not sure of the gestation period of a new leader, manager or business person. That said, when I was coming up through the ranks there were always older and wiser people around who were able to pass on their wisdom relating to almost any given situation. I found myself a few months ago talking with a junior manager who was quite concerned about the recession and how we/he would survive. Having been around for the last one (and, I think, the one before) I was able to talk about how it looked and felt to be in our current situation. I can’t claim to know exactly what will happen this time around, but the application of experience and clear reasoned thinking can sometimes be useful. Maybe, then, there’s still a use for coaches and even consultants… well, maybe those with a few grey hairs anyway.

If there had been a few around on the Galapagos we may still have the Dodo. The Dodo was, by all accounts, not a particularly tasty bird but somewhat more flavoursome than the rations of the visiting sailors. They were, also, fairly slow and not overly intelligent. A wiser old bird might have worked out that Dodos that approached sailors seldom (never) returned, they may have counselled against wandering up to these nice men with clubs in their hands… unfortunately, as I mentioned, the Dodo was not the quickest of birds (in any sense) so they all got eaten rather rapidly. The trick is to learn from what is going on around you and adapt your behaviour in order to ensure survival.

Speciation – Darwin’s view was that as new generations come along, the population changed because some traits are passed on and others are not. A new species exists when a population is different enough from the original population.

Darwin also said that “…Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps.”

What that probably means for us is that we need to respond to our new environment by doing things a little bit differently than before and that we’re focused upon slightly different objectives… maybe less about rapid growth and more about sustainability?

Rapid, knee jerk responses are unlikely to give long-lasting stability and safety unless, like the boiling frog, you happen to have been dropped into a pot of very hot water. It’s more likely that the actions of the frog upon which I sat so many years ago will be more constructive… assessing the situation, coming up with a solution and gradually easing its way out of trouble before hopping off on a new adventure.

The clever part, of course, is in recognising those small changes in temperature before it’s too late.
Ian Cooper

P.S. For those not familiar with the Whicker Island sketch, you’ll find the script at

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