A Smoldering Crisis is Hard to Detect

A smoldering crisis can be hard to detect. When the situation bursts suddenly into flame and into public view, the organization is genuinely surprised. The root cause of the surprise is that the problem has come to be accepted as the way things are.

I once led a crisis tabletop exercise for a business that provided materials into healthcare settings. The tabletop scenario centered on a manufacturing upset that sent off-spec materials into hospitals. I was stunned to hear people on the business team wondering aloud how they would be able to distinguish this hypothetical problem from their routine real-world problems with off-spec materials. I called them on it and added it to our list of topics requiring further investigation.

Like the proverbial frog in cool water on a burner who doesn’t sense the rising danger until it’s too late*, an organization can become so accustomed to some heat from an issue that members of the team no longer recognize the risks. It takes a flashpoint to get their attention, but at that stage the opportunity for crisis prevention has been lost.

A quiet, smoldering problem can be the most difficult to get people to react to. This can be true in business but also in a marriage or in our health. It takes vigilance and discernment to catch the small fire before it becomes a major conflagration.

*From Wikipedia — The boiling frog is an anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in cold water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that arise gradually.