In my quest for change-friendliness, I’m working through a stack of reading on capabilities, business dynamics, business-technology innovation and change.
Like many, I have the bad habit of multi-tasking my reading, so items don’t move to the finished stack as quickly as I’d like. However, a book that grabbed my full attention is Switch, How to Change Things when Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath.
Switch is not your typical change management tome. There’s no 10-Step Plan or Come-to-Consensus moment. Instead, the Heath brothers present a clear 3-part framework based on scientific research of how the human brain works. In short, the framework advocates appealing to individual’s rational (Rider) and emotional (Elephant) sides, and shaping the change path.
The book is broken into three sections – Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant and Shape the Path. Consistent with their earlier book, Made to Stick, and their Fast Company column, Switch is replete with real-world anecdotes about identifying, motivating and executing difficult changes.
One story that stuck out for me was Jerry Sternin’s work in 1990 with Save the Children in Vietnam. Save the Children was invited to Vietnam to combat malnutrition. However, when Sternin arrived, he was given “six months to make a difference”. This deadline made the research Sternin collected on malnutrition root causes — poverty, lack of clean water, poor sanitation and nutrition ignorance — “true but useless” (TBU).
Sternin didn’t have the time or money to address the underlying issues. He needed to identify a more direct way to make a difference. Forgoing the typical “focus on the problem” route, Sternin set out in search of bright spots. Sternin sought out well-nourished village children to learn how they defied the odds. Once identified, Sternin studied how these homes varied from the norm, on the lookout for deviations related to nutrition. Through observation, Sternin was able to identify differences in what and how the well-nourished children were fed.
Instead of issuing a proclamation of his findings, Sternin created a change path. Sternin instituted a mothers-teaching-mothers community program to change feeding habits. Making these seemingly small adjustments – number of meals per day, individual servings, sweet potato green and shrimp supplements to rice — dramatically improved childhood nutrition in the studied villages, and then spread throughout the country, eventually reaching 2.2 million people in 265 villages.
Besides the humanitarian aspect, what appealed to me about Sternin’s story was the problem solving technique. Instead of getting lost in “true but useless” (analysis-paralysis) Sternin identified and exploited bright spots. In a later example, a similar technique is described as Appreciative Inquiry.
Reading Switch, I picked up techniques related to change and solving hard problems. The latter was a pleasant surprise for me. If your work involves change, hard problems or the combination, I highly recommend Switch.