SIR PETER KEMP – The parable of the foolish frog

All our bookshelves contain bestselling unreads. These are books youstories, but Sir Peter Kemp wonders whether they really mean what they claim they do. feel you have to buy but which you can’t quite bear to read. Two current examples are A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, and the State We’re In by Will Hutton.

The kings in this club have to be the management gurus: your Druckers, Peters, and Handys who beat everyone in the negative correlation between being bought and being read.

These thoughts were put in my mind by hearing for the umpteenth time the story which one or indeed all three of Messrs Drucker, Peters and Handy are fond of peddling, and indeed have made millions out of, a pair of frogs, as an illustration of management competence or incompetence.

You will know the story only too well. Frog A jumps into the boiling water and then jumps out very quickly. He is a wise frog. Frog B jumps into the cold water and swims around while it heats up and then cooks to death. He is a foolish frog.

Now to the bleary-eyed, white-shirted ephebe from Price Waterhouse or Coopers or whichever, sitting in their conference room in a hotel outside Heathrow and deeply fatigued after watching the hotel in-house video until 3 o’clock in the morning, this may look like a pretty good parable.

Let us pause and deconstruct it, as the academics would say. First, Frog A is not a wise frog at all. In fact he is rather stupid. Why did he hop into the hot water in the first place? He must have known it was hot, and that he would not be able to stand it. Having got in, he had to get out quickly, so he had no time to do anything useful. True he was alive and well, but he was obviously ready to do it all over again. He was short-sighted, excitable and unemployable, and fit only to be served up for supper in a French restaurant.

Frog B clearly is cleverer than Frog A and more enterprising. He was not silly enough to hop into the hot water in the first place; he kept his cool. And he kept his options open, and if things got too hot he could have turned the gas down, if nothing better occurred, or hopped out.

He adapted, either within the environment he was in, or by changing it. He was the sort of person who, if he was making bicycles in 1900, would turn to making motor-cars. He created wealth. He sometimes met with disasters, but he was creative and adaptable; he took a risk or so, but he was better value than Frog A.

Frog A is the one that will be hiding in the empty raincoat long after Frog B has bought the factory that made it.

Sir Peter Kemp is chief executive of the Foundation for Accountancy and Financial Management.

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