Leaders and boiled frogs: Another lesson in project presentation

March 15, 2007

240px-caerulea3_crop.jpgHow to make that important presentation sparkle. I bumped into a project leader today who reminded me how some years ago his team made one of the most memorable business pitches I’ve ever been fortunate enough to witness. It brought back the scene as vividly as if the pitch had been made yesterday. He too remembered it, commenting that his team was ‘only’ awarded a B+. The case is worth studying.

I bumped into Will as he walked past the coffee area, which is the Charing Cross Station of the Business School (American translation: O’ Hare transit lounge, or NY Central Rail Terminal). A crossroads where more often than not, you bump into long-lost acquaintances heading for somewhere else. That’s why you must never feel bad about time spent around your own particular Charing Cross.

Will and his team had worked on a business project examining the performance and potential of a national division of an international organisation. Their presentation concluded that the company was in danger of sleepwalking into big trouble.

As their tutor, I doubted whether they would find a way of conveying their message in a way that would not sound bland, and well, boring. Their interim report suggested that they were backing off from some heavy organisational politics.

It was then that one of the team came across the work on Charles Handy. (I said they were diligent). They had come up with a classic, and one of my favourite popular books on management, The Age of Unreason. Come to think of it, had they cunningly figured out I was ancient enough to respond positively to it!?

What lots of teachers borrowed from the book

For a while several of the concepts in the book became highly fashionable, and entered into business-lite jargon. Remember the shamrock organisation? Then the title was useful in creativity and leadership development courses. It recalls the famous saying of George Bernard Shaw

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

The story of the boiled frog

One of the particularly memorable stories is now depicted on the cover of the British version of the book. It is the story of the boiled frog. (The Harvard edition has Charles Handy on the cover, looking quintessentially wise and reasonable).

The story goes as follows. A tribe of South American Indians had learned how to boil their frogs, of which they had an abundant supply. The Indian chef (no pun intended) would pop a king-sized Frog into a pot of water, which was then heated up on the traditional tribal barbecue. For reasons to do with a frog’s physiology, the frog just got more and more comfortable as the water warmed up. Eventually the hapless creature was, well, I can’t put it less cruelly, boiled.

Now here’s the bit that people remembered. Suppose you took another frog and dropped it into a cooking pot, this time of boiling water. What happended next? THE FROG JUMPED OUT!

The moral of the story is that you can become too comfortable if your environment is gradually changing. Eventually you will be eaten by the members of an unnamed South American tribe. But a sharp jolt, however pleasant, may be what’s good for you, and you may hop away, a bit overheated, but surviving into the future.

What the students did

Well, they went for it. No explanation. Their final presentation had a narrator who was in business dress, one student in Kermit-costume enacting the above story, various other students in politically incorrect underwear, one of who was also wearing a chef’s hat. Cooking pot and fire were mocked-up in matt cardboard and electric torches. Act one was suitably boring. Act two was a definite hit with the audience. Kermit had obviously been practicing standing-start jumping.

What’s memorably unreasonable, and what’s stupidly unreasonable?

That’s for you to decide. Playing their Olympian roles, the assessors dried their eyes, and compromised with a B+ for the overall project. The team also received dire warnings about trying to conceal a weak business presentation with a vivid performance.

As I recall, the team had actually already enacted the whole frog thing to a group from inside the company, including its sponsors. These included the leaders who were being criticised for letting circumstances creep up on them.

If they had checked with me as tutor I would like to think I would have encouraged them to try it out first in class before risking it with the company.

What lessons are there for other project teams?

Great presentations work because they are memorable. But memorable has to be aligned to a core message. It should reinforce the message, not substitute for one. And that was why the most memorable presentation that I ever saw ‘only’ got a B+ .

There again, if the presentation had been bland and boring they probably would have been awarded a borderline pass or C.