January 9, 2005
Boiling the Frog
We boiled the frog recently at Return Path.
What the heck does this mean? There was an old story, I’ve since been told apocryphal, we told a lot back when I was a management consultant trying to work on change management projects. It was basically that:
If you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will leap right back out. But if you put a frog in a pot of water on the stove and then heat it up to boiling, you’ll boil the frog because it never quite realized that it’s being cooked until its muscles and brain are slightly too cooked to jump out.
How have we boiled the frog? Two ways recently. First, we let a staffing problem sneak up on us. We were short one person in a critical area (accounting and business operations), and we had decided to try to go without the extra person for a month or two for cost-savings reasons. Then, another person in that group unexpectedly left. Then, another person in that group got seriously sick and was out for several weeks. The result? We were down three people in an area very quickly, without a proper pipeline of candidates coming in the door for any of the open positions. So for a period of time, we can’t get the things done out of that group we want to get done, despite the heroic efforts of the remaining people in the group.
Second, we have had an Exchange server problem that has been plaguing one of our three offices for six months now (no, the irony of an email company having internal email problems isn’t lost on us). In retrospect, the first time we had a big problem with it, we should have dropped everything, brought in an outside consultant, and done a rapid-fire infrastructure upgrade/replacement. But we were truly boiled here — we kept thinking we’d fixed the problem, the situation kept deteriorating slowly enough to the point where the productivity of this one office was seriously compromised for a few weeks. Happily, I can report this weekend that our IT team is cuting over to our new environment — "the promised land," as they call it.
How do you stop yourself from getting boiled? I think you have to:
1. Recognize when you’re in a pot of water. What areas of your company are so mission critical that they’re always at risk? Have you done everything you can do to eliminate single points of failure?
2. Recognize when someone turns on the burner. Do you know the early-warning signs for all of these areas? Can you really live without an extra person or two in that department? Is it ok if that server doesn’t work quite right?
3. Recognize when you care about the frog. You can’t solve all problems, all of the time. Figuring out which ones need to be solved urgently vs. eventually vs. never is one of the most important roles a decision-maker in a company can make.