Finding the Sweet Spot Between Panic and Complacency Or, How to be Better at Frogger

There is an old wives’ tale that goes something like this: a frog will jump out of a pot filled with boiling water, but if it is placed in cold water and then heated up, it will adjust to the temperature and will be cooked alive without even knowing what is happening.

The story is a cautionary metaphorical tale to remind listeners to be aware of their surroundings because if you aren’t, it may lead to unexpected and unfavorable consequences.  This is a great metaphor for business and innovation. So my question is, what happened to the first frog that jumped out of the boiling pot of water?

In my version of the story, the frog is in such a panic after escaping the pot, it can’t find a door or window to escape the kitchen. So while it is searching for an exit, the cat gets to it first. The first frog is unable to escape because it is too shaken up that it can't think clearly to plan an escape.

So here’s the real problem. How do you convince your organization not to be too comfortable while inspiring action without pushing people into their panic zone?

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I think that most people operate from a place of comfort or complacency. This is what we know and feel comfortable doing on automatic pilot. Right outside of this area is the “growth” zone – some call it the “learning zone” or “tension” – but I’m going to call it “the sweet spot” because that’s where focused learning takes place. And the result of being in the sweet spot is the growing of your comfort zone. But we have to be careful not to grow too quickly because if we are put into a position far enough away from our comfort zone, we go into a panic. Unfortunately, many organizations oscillate between comfort and panic, rarely spending much time in the sweet spot. To be able to grow your organization, you need to find this sweet spot and stay in that zone as long as possible. Inevitably, there are going to be times of complacency and panic; the goal is to recognize these behaviors and get yourself back on track when you slide too far to one side.

Look below at the traits and descriptions of each response state. Ask yourself if your organization is in the . . .

  1. Comfort Zone: “We’re fine. Look, the gods have rewarded us with a hot tub!”
  2. Panic Zone: “I’d like to find an exit, but I’m too busy!”
  3. The Sweet Spot: “Hey, does it smell like we’re cooking?”


The Comfort Zone

Some argue that a company with a long history of success fosters a culture of entitlement, making it hard to prepare for the future because previous success makes people and organizations complacent. This is exactly how organizations fall behind and are leap-frogged by companies with less resource, smaller budgets, and with fewer known celebrity names.

Relying too much on past success or perceived success is harmful because the rest of the world quickly forgets about your awards because success is temporary. The word thanks you for your contribution, but the hard fact to face is that it is becoming outdated. And the reason why coasting on past success doesn’t work is because the things that helped you in the past may not help you now.

Comfort often looks like . . .

  1. Relying on others to fix a problem instead of searching for solutions
  2. Saying, “our competition isn’t even looking into this, we are so far ahead of everyone”
  3. Resisting change
  4. Passing up opportunities to grow your skills 
  5. Working in an echo chamber where your views are never challenged

If you know the building is on fire but can’t convince your co-workers, it might be that you are working in a culture of denial. And if this is the case, you may need to jump ship and try to save as many people as you can. The webcomic writer KC Green wrote a piece that illustrates this point quite well.


Panic or a False Sense of Urgency

Here are some common traits of an organization in panic:

  1. Being driven by anxiety, pressures from superiors, and/or anger 
  2. Blaming others
  3. Stressing and over-compensating due to a lack of focus
  4. Having a Fixed-Mindset where individuals fixate on the mess instead of finding a broom to clean up the mess.
  5. Not meeting deadlines or viewing deadlines as flexible

A lot of what is listed above are high-energy activities, however, they are dead ends. It is a feedback loop, growing louder with misdirected intensity, feeding back into itself. Blame leads to more blame or anger instead of searching for a solution. Anger rarely encourages and when it does, the results are less than favorable. And finally, stress and anxiety lead to busy brains circling around temporary problems or imagined failures.

Often, people mistake busyness for productivity. Just because someone is over-booked for meetings or is working 80-hours a weeks, doesn’t mean they are effective. Chaos is not change. Just as spinning wheels and rocking chairs move with effort but the movement is stationary. Running in circles only gets you back to the starting line.


The growth zone or “sweet spot”

Most bubblegum business books describe this sweet spot as a “desire to win” attitude. Winning or losing doesn’t have much to do with it because what’s really important is that the person has an unfettered passion to be the best they can be in their area of interest.

  1. People in the sweet spot maintain manageable schedules by breaking goals down into several daily tasks.
  2. They keep themselves informed about what is going inside and outside of the organization. They read blogs, articles, books, and watch videos about their field.
  3. They are alert and proactive, looking for opportunities and taking risks.
  4. They know how to manage time and distractions.
  5. Innovation and creativity is rewarded and part of the company culture.
  6. They embrace positive thinking that motivates others. 
  7. They have a clear focus and know what is important and necessary to spend time on.
  8. The leadership, top-down, believes in a shared set of values.
  9. There are results at the end of meetings (scheduling another meeting is not a “result”).
  10. People are not “blame” motivated, but emotionally motivated.

The best way to tell if your organization is operating from their comfort zone or panic zone is to look at their actions. Ask yourself: Is innovation part of your organization’s culture or is it the new trend they are wearing to keep up with appearances? Even really brilliant people can become complacent or panicked, and pointing it out to them can make the problem worse than better, because pointing out a problem may provoke someone to find an unsound reason to justify their actions. Instead, use the motivational interviewing techniques I wrote about last week.

If someone you know can’t get out of their comfort zone without hitting their panic zone, it may be because the industry is changing into one they no longer have a passion for.  If this is the case, help your friend find a position that will be a better fit for them. Industries change, teams change, and sometimes your passion or “star” moves. Help your friend rediscover their sweet spot.


Hop urgently yet cautiously, friends!


Andrew J. Wilt 
SEI Junior Consultant 
Apprenticeship Program