Change blindness: What’s happened to the fish?

Change blindnessRadiolab posted a wonderful story recently about the shrinking fish off the coast of Key West, Florida. It reported on a paper written by a doctoral student, Loren McClenachan, who had the idea to study 50 years of photographs taken by fishermen on their return from a chartered fishing trip.

You can see the shots here of proud fishermen displaying their catch hanging from their tails. In the 1950s, there were a lot of proud fishermen posing in front of dozens of six-foot-long fish. In the 1960s, a new generation of fishermen stood proudly in front of fish that were still pretty big. By the 2000s, the fishing parties were still displaying lots of fish, but none were more than a foot long.  

The point of the article, however, is that no one was complaining. The fishermen of the 50s were delighted with their massive fish, and the fishermen of the 2000s were happy with their large catches of smaller fish. Because the change from large to small fish took place over five decades, no one really noticed. One expression for this failure to recognize that things are changing for the worse is the “boiling frog” syndrome—the idea that a frog dropped in boiling water would try to leap out, but will stay in that same pot if the water is heated up gradually. Radiolab, however, refers to this as “change blindness,” citing several articles suggesting we adjust pretty easily to very gradual changes over long periods of time. One academic observes we are now eating smaller fish than people used to eat. In fact, we’re eating fish our grandparents would have considered bait. He even says our grandchildren will probably have their tuna fish sandwiches replaced with jellyfish sandwiches―and no one will complain.

This sets off alarm bells if you’re an environmentalist, of course, because it suggests we are likely to sleepwalk into the extinction of entire species. But this is also highly relevant to our discussions of Founder’s Mentality. We argue that there is a default path for most companies as they scale: They start as insurgents with great cultures focused on a sense of insurgency, owner mind-sets and an obsession with the front line and customers. But as they grow, that culture is replaced with a more professional one. It enjoys huge benefits of scale and scope, but gradually loses any sense of a nobler mission or any sense of a group of owners defining their own destiny. 

Such cultural changes are gradual, and companies rarely implode like supernovas. Instead, over time, they shrink before our eyes. To me, this gives rise to some key questions:

  1. If you’re a small but growing company, are you fighting to maintain your sense of the Founder’s Mentality and working proactively to avoid the gradual cultural changes that erode your nobler mission?
  2. If you’re a large, established company, are you fighting to avoid bureaucracy and the complexity that will gradually kill your growth? Are you gaining the benefits of scale and scope while avoiding their sometimes crippling costs?
  3. For any company, are you doing what it takes to remain the best proposition for your customers? Or, are you beginning to be satisfied with just “being in the running”?

The case of the shrinking fish highlights that we are unlikely to notice the subtle erosion of our performance until it’s too late. Fishing is still fun, even if the fish are shrinking. I often ask clients to ask themselves, “What were we like when we were at our greatest?” In other words, think back to when you were 100% sure your company was humming on all cylinders and doing great things for your customers and your people. (In many cases, this was a while ago.) Then ask, “How does that compare with what we’re like now, and where are the biggest gaps?” 

Sometimes it’s only when you look at issues over a period of three to four decades that you notice how small the fish have become.

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