Ideas on People and Performance, Team Building, Motivation and Innovation

Month: September 2012

Thoughts on Boiling Frogs and other metaphors on change

I have a Big Bunch of cartoons and I was illustrating another blog post when I came across two that I have not used in a zillion years, but both of which have some good learning and discussion points.

The classic is the old Boiling Frog metaphor. It is a good story, but patently untrue. But it is, again, a good parable. I liked what had to say about it — I mean you just cannot make this stuff up:

“The “boiled frog” story is indeed a kind of “old folk warning” an all-purpose didactic anecdote particularly favored by business types to illustrate the point that moving too recklessly and aggressively may leave one with an empty pot, but traversing a steadier course of more gradual change is much more likely to bring about the desired result.” It continues: “Or the story can be used in the opposite sense, to demonstrate the perils of remaining complacent in the marketplace.”

The fable is also used by moralists, apparently, “as a cautionary tale warning against the folly of letting smaller wrongs just slip by or of falling into a pattern of small and seemingly harmless sin rather than disturb one’s complacency enough to address these issues, thereby allowing evil to grow into a powerful force.” One should thus be very cautious about one’s apparent moral inactivity or complacency or you too may become frog legs on some evildoer’s plate! (Yes, you cannot make this stuff up!)

But the metaphor is NOT true. Professor Emeritus Hutchinson from Oklahoma University — a zoologist focused on the physiological ecology of thermal relations of amphibians and reptiles analyzing factors determining the lethal temperatures, critical thermal maxima and minima, thermal selection and thermoregulatory behavior of animals like frogs and turtles — states that this story is completely incorrect. Amphibia-like frogs maintain the body temperature of their surroundings, unlike mammals. The analysis involves gradually raising the frog’s seated temperature in water at 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature increases, the frog will become more and more animated in its attempts to escape the water and will do so if the container size and opening will allow it to jump out. (This sounds more and more like some workplaces I know of!)

Raise the heat and the frog jumps out, if it can. (There is some coaching metaphor in there, I think.) And apparently other researchers than Dr. Hutchinson have apparently studied this phenomenon — your tax dollars at work. Thus, my attempt to get some return on that investment by sharing this information.

You can actually find serious discussions of how to use the Boiling Frog Story at places like THIS ONE and even a religious site here. Someone even did a real science-oriented YouTube Video showing a frog in a pan on a stove who actually gets boiled… (No frogs were actually harmed, it said. But it said nothing about dinner…)

On the other hand, there is the Crab Bucket Phenomenon. Yes, in this one you must imagine the action of crabs when placed together in a bucket. (No boiling water is used in this experiment, although I do have some good recipes for crabs, clams and lobsters placed in somewhat different situations than that described here.)

The basic theme is that a bunch of crabs in a bucket will generally keep grabbing the crabs that are escaping, pulling them back into the bucket — it is a “same as everybody else” kind of situational existence in that none are allowed to escape, as if crabs are really thinking along those lines…  I think it is more like the old, “If all you have is a hammer, you tend to view everything as a nail” kind of view.

“If all you have is a claw, you tend to grab onto things!”

At least that was how I had been using it for many years, simply as a metaphor for people behaving so as to maintain the status quo and how things are. But when presenting in The Philippines years ago, I was given a very different spin. There, when one person becomes successful or starts a business, they are expected to help pull everybody else out of the bucket. If they had a company, they would be expected to hire a lot of their relatives, regardless of how much those people might actually contribute to profitability. As a result of this social expectation, it was more difficult for anyone to succeed.


Metaphors are great, since one can never really predict how people will react to them. I wrote about this a bit more in another blog, “Metaphors, Business Impacts and Behavioral Anchors

But I also find it pretty funny when public speakers talk about this stuff as if they actually knew “the mind of a crab” and its intentions. The term is “anthropomorphism” where one attributes human  characteristics to animals or other objects. “That bee was out to get me!” — In a couple of different online posts, people talk about the crabs working to keep everyone together and to not allow one person to succeed or some such craziola thinking. Yes, maybe the crab IS thinking of a career in the military services, or about getting a degree from one of the online colleges, but it is pretty hard to really know…

What metaphors do is allow people to project their beliefs onto them, and by sharing those beliefs, one can get a better idea of their thinking. When applied to organization improvement, there are a lot of positive impacts available.

If we can help you with some of our business improvement tools based on Square Wheels and other metaphors, contact us.

For the FUN of It.

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at

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Square Wheels, Mixed Levels of Management, and Implementation Success

I got a great question in an email this morning that triggered this post on how to implement improvements.

A training manager in a multinational pharmaceutical company in Vietnam asked me about using my Square Wheels Facilitation Toolkit:  “As your experience, could you advice me that this session can be run for a group of  mixture all levels employees or better for managerial people only?
I have a Teambuilding event for 2 functions : HR and Finance & Accounting together – all levels to improve the working/operation cooperation among members, can it work?”

My experience and advice would be, “Absolutely and Positively.”

Square Wheels is a metaphor-based and flexible tool for improving communications and identifying issues and opportunities. It is a way of changing the language of performance to “The things that might be improved” without any kind of blame frame or value-judgement as to the politics or cultural issues that are involved in its current existence.

In other places, I have written extensively about how to facilitate with these materials. See, for example, the landing page at for a lot of different ideas and links. (There is also a long list of basic facilitation ideas included in the toolkit itself.)

Without a discussion of the current political and cultural climate of the HR and Finance / Accounting groups themselves, I have consistently found it beneficial to get people with different perspectives into the discussion of the various opportunities for improvement, especially when one will focus on implementing improvements. With both groups participating, it minimizes the issues of one group feeling that another is pressing something onto them. Ownership of ideas is a critical component of getting things changed. Everyone needs to have some degree of active involvement and engagement.

Remember this simple reality:

“Nobody ever washes a rental car.”

Having a mixed group of managers and non-managers and senior managers might be problematic if the organization is political or if some of the managers are taking on an “everything is okay, here, people” kind of mentality and not wanting to implement change or improvement. If that defensiveness exists in a Most Senior Manager, the efforts of the group will not be accepted — what one MUST do is preempt that from occurring by getting their sign-off beforehand. You can even make that person an apparent supporter by giving them a leadership role in the session itself by allowing them to moderate discussions, etc. (careful with this and coach this carefully!).

A common view of Interdepartmental Collaboration

Overall Approach:

I would use the approach of showing Square Wheels One to the entire group and allowing them to play with the themes that they discover in the illustration, using tabletop discussions of 5 to 6 people (mixed). Depending on time, you can have them capture ideas on easel pad paper or simply “blurt” out their thoughts if time is short. Getting them to present their ideas sets the stage for later idea presentation.

Then, initiate a loose discussion of, “What might be some possible Square Wheels in our organizations” and allow them great latitude in generating IDEAS. You are not looking for Truth and Reality here, but allowing them to throw some mud at the wire fence and be creative, funny, insightful, participative, goofy and serious at the same time. You might want to give out candy for good ideas or the longest list or similar, just to get them firing up on the creative and innovative side of things. The idea is to have some fun and to capture ideas!

I would have them write ALL the tables’ ideas on an easel pad and put them up on the walls –make it into a contest on quantity. Funny is also good. But this is the set up to the serious work ahead.

Then, have each table look around at ALL the ideas and (ideally) select ONE Square Wheel that was NOT from their own tabletop’s creativity and work up three Round Wheel ideas that might help solve that problem. This generates a good bit of behavioral and creative variety from the group — ownership will push them to want to work on their own idea but that is somewhat self-limiting and you are looking for team building and improved communications inter-departmentally.

They can then post up their ideas and someone from each tabletop can discuss the issue and the perceived opportunity.

Now, the Most Senior Managers can play some role in requesting that people “sign up” to help implement those ideas. Since organizations differ so much in HOW this kind of thing is done, I will not offer any unsolicited suggestions about the style or construct of this part of the session. There are issues of recognition, intrinsic reward and intrinsic motivation, peer support, organizational necessity as well as issues of potential risk and exposure in certain situations.

If the culture is competitive, then you may have minimized some of the issues of inter-organizational collaboration by having the two groups work together. If the organization is political, you may have addressed some of the leadership gaps by having different levels of the employee base interactively work together to generate ideas, issues and opportunities. Finance might also naturally add some “financial impact qualifiers” to the mix in the analysis.

The Key is to use the metaphor of Square Wheels to attach to anything that might not be working smoothly — it may not be functioning efficiently or effectively while it is not broken. There are lots of process improvements that may help improve productivity or performance.

Heck, you can also use this for improving the creative innovation parts of the business. Round Wheels can simply mean small incremental improvements.

Hope that helps. Have fun out there.

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at

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Are Square Wheels better than Round Ones?

We have been playing with the concept of Square Wheels as a descriptive tool for organizational improvement since 1993. And, we routinely find that the Square Wheels represent things that thump and bump along for most people, such as dealing with companies like Charter Communications (over and over, thump thump…  I wish they would fix the problem I first reported in June!) and with company automated call directors when you call in (“Please listen to this entire message, since our system has recently changed…”) and all that…

When we present Square Wheels One, we commonly get LOTS of examples of what might be happening. I’ve actually collected over 300 different responses to the illustration, many of which I have reported elsewhere and in powerpoint slides and in other media.  Often, they represent problems in making smooth forward progress:

(unknown source)

BUT, wooden Square Wheels are not always problematic for everyone or in all situations. Sometimes, a Square Wheel represents a better solution:

  • It is better for cooking hot dogs than rubber tires
  • It works better for helicopters
  • It is better to use Square Wheels when descending steep hills
  • They are easier to stand on if you have to look far forward
  • They represent better opportunities for improvement

And, yes, SQUARE Wheels are better for shooting cannons.

But generally, most people would agree that implementing Round Wheels in the workplace is a far better idea than continuing to frustrate people with the constant thumping and bumping of the Square ones. Giving people a chance to implement solutions is intrinsically motivating, especially when they do this in small teams and get the recognition from others in the organization about the positive impacts of those improvements.

Have fun out there and get things done!

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at

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Ideas and Images – The Brain Sees New Possibilities

I’ve been interested in illusions and creativity and brain functioning since the 1970s and have collected a lot of images that look like one thing until you look more closely. Consider this image, for example:

Illusions stimulate brain creativity

It appears to be a tree, until you look more closely. And the more you look, the more you see. (How many faces are there in this image?)

Similarly, one can be shown this image and asked, “How many squares are there in this diagram?”

How many squares in this square illustion and answers

Take a minute with both of these illustrations. (My answers are below)

So, your brain can see a lot of things, if it is given the time to process the information and consider possibilities. A quick peek at the square above will NOT show you all that are there — you need to spend a few minutes on it to get an actual count and you need to think, “out of the box” to find all the squares.

The same things occur in the workplace. People that are hands-on and doing the job will spend a lot more time thinking about the tasks and processes that are involved in that job. Their level of analysis can be pretty high, especially if they are motivated by thinking about possible improvements.

And this one is new, as I update this older post:


What do you see? The parrot? Well, take a really hard look at this painting. The painting and picture are called, “Color us confused.” (Courtesy Johannes Stotter Art) and it came from this website and this article on how illusions confuse the brain.

The parrot is a woman, posing. Her left foot and leg are the tail. Her other leg is raised up and her elbow forms the top of her head, with her hand being the beak! Yeah, it took me a long while to see that one, too! Artists see things differently, and they often understand how to fool the brain. Magicians take it a step farther, even, but that is outside the scope of this writing.

In practice, our Square Wheels One illustration accomplishes many of these same kinds of brain challenges, getting people to consider possibilities and opportunities for improvement. But more than a simple cartoon, our illustrations can provide a context for facilitated discussions about implementation of these ideas. Implementation is the key to getting things done.

Square Wheels One How Things Work ©

Illustrations and illusions are great tools to play with how people think and to generate some creative energy about identifying and implementing improvements. They can generate teamwork, innovation, and intrinsic motivation to improve results.

(Answers – I see ten faces in the first illustration, 5 on each side and you can count forty squares in the second — see this page to see an animation of the answer: )

We sell simple to use toolkits to actively involve and engage people in the workplace to use their brains and the collaboration process to generate new ideas. Simple and easy. Bombproof, too!

SWs Facilitation Guide $50

You can find another article that shares other illusions by clicking on the image below:

escher ring

For the FUN of It!

Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at

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Herding Cats and Building Teamwork – some funny videos!

Years ago, Al Breland showed me a clip of the EDS commercial that used Warren Bennis’ theme (his book of 1997) that managing is a lot like herding cats in a really funny commercial. So, when a new customer used that phrase in our discussion about building improvement and collaboration and shared focus on moving things together, I laughed and referenced the video on YouTube.

You can see it here –

When it comes to how groups really operate, the Herding Cats analogy is a really good one. Most top performers tend to like to do things their own way, which is one of the reasons that they tend to be top performers! And, in exercises like The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, it is obvious that teams of people like to make their own decisions and choices and that leadership can only influence them, not control what they do.

(I have often likened play of Lost Dutchman like what occurred in the movie, Far and Away, where it depicts the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. You can see a clip of this also on YouTube at Haaaaaaa!!!!!)

What we do with Lost Dutchman and our other exercise is get participants to have some fun, make some choices, and behave. We then link the behavior to the desired outcomes of the session and get people talking about the need for clarity, the impact of leadership and collaboration, required resources to succeed and similar issues that may be perceived to occur in most organizations. This gives that management team an opportunity to address those perceptions, ask for commitment, and get things done more effectively.

You can find a full history of how EDS’ Herding Cats advertisement was constructed by checking out this site — — where you can also see the video about The Running of The Squirrels, which is also a hoot!

You can also find a longer, updated and embellished article on this same topic by clicking on the icon below, where we add the metaphor of “herding frogs”:

The Great Frog Roundup

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at

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Scott’s quips and quotes on Poems on The Workplace is here.

You can find some powerful tools for impacting corporate teambuildingand improving organizational performance at our website, featuring The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine and our Square Wheels tools:

teambuidlng products by scott simmerman

Square Wheels® is a registered trademark of Performance Management Co.
LEGO® is a trademark of The LEGO Group

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