Stoned Soup and Boiled Frogs

By: Andrew Hunt and David Thomas
in The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master           

Three soldiers returning home from war were hungry. When they saw the village ahead their spirits lifted they were sure the villagers would give them a meal. But when they got there, they found the doors locked and windows closed. After many years of war the villagers were short of food and hoarded what they had.           

Undeterred, the soldiers boiled a pot of water and carefully placed three stones into it. The amazed villagers came out to watch.

“This is stone soup”, the soldiers explained. “Is that all you put in it?” asked the villagers. “Absolutely although some say it tastes even better with a few carrots…” A villager ran off, returning in no time with a basket of carrots from his hoard.

A couple of minutes later, the villagers again asked “Is that it?”

“Well,” said the soldiers, “a couple of potatoes give it body.” Off ran another villager.

Over the next hour, the soldiers listed more ingredients that would enhance the soup: beef, leeks, salt, and herbs. Each time a different villager would run off to raid their personal stores.
Eventually they had produced a large pot of steaming soup. The soldiers removed the stones, and they sat down with the entire village to enjoy the first square meal any of them had eaten in months.

The morals of the story are:

  • The soldiers act as a catalyst, bringing together the villagers to jointly produce something that they couldn’t have done by themselves. A synergy where everyone wins.
  • The soldiers plant the ideas within the villagers heads, rather than ordering them or asking permission, thus overcoming initial resistants. “Start-up fatigue” 
  • The soldiers lead by example, doing the initial development (boiling the water), then they showed the villagers. They couldn’t suggest enhancements without doing the background work. People find it easier to join a current and successful pro ject that also shows them a glimpse of the future.
  • Deception is not central to the soldiers success in acting as a catalyst, indeed it is a negative. The moral about the deception is that the villagers focused too tightly and didn’t see the bigger picture. We all fall for it, everyday. Projects get out of hand slowly, it is the small things that snowball.
  • It is the accumulation of small things that break morale and teams. 

They say that if you take a frog and drop it into boiling water, it will jump straight back out again. However, if you place the frog in a pan of cold water, then gradually heat it, the frog won’t notice the slow increase in temperature and will stay put until cooked.

Additional moral of the story: Jangan makan katak. Makan ayam lagi best.

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