The following is an excerpt from Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, in which authors Chip and Dan Heath study how the human mind functions so we can conquer our innate resistance to change. Because once we learn to accept change, we can welcome new behaviors to help us improve – and become the bright spots.
That’s the first step to fixing everything from addiction to corporate malaise to malnutrition. A problem may look hopelessly complex. But there’s a game plan that can yield movement on even the toughest issues. And it starts with locating a bright spot — a ray of hope.
When Jerry Sternin arrived in Vietnam, the welcome was rather chilly. The government had invited his employer, Save the Children, the international organization that helps kids in need, to open an office in the country in 1990 to fight malnutrition. But the foreign minister let Sternin know that not everyone in the government appreciated his presence. The minister told him, “You have six months to make a difference.”
The conventional wisdom was that malnutrition was the result of an intertwined set of problems: Sanitation was poor. Poverty was nearly universal. Clean water was not readily available. The rural people tended to be ignorant about nutrition.
“Millions of kids can’t wait for those issues to be addressed,” he said. If addressing malnutrition required ending poverty and purifying water and building sanitation systems, then it would never happen. Especially in six months, with virtually no money to spend.
When it’s time to change, we must look for bright spots – the first signs that things are working, the first precious As and Bs on our report card. We need to ask ourselves a question that sounds simple but is, in fact, deeply unnatural: What’s working and how can we do more of it?
Ignoring the experts, Sternin traveled to a local village and called together all the village’s mothers. He asked for their assistance in finding ways to nourish their kids better, and they agreed to help. As the first step, they went out in teams to weigh and measure every child in the village. Then, they pored over the results together with Sternin.
He asked them, “Did you find any very, very poor kids who are bigger and healthier than the typical child?” The women, scanning the data, nodded and said, “Có, có, có.” (Yes, yes, yes.)
He said, “You mean it’s possible today in this village for a very poor family to have a well-nourished child?”
“Có, có, có.”
“Then let’s go see what they’re doing.”
Sternin’s strategy was to search the community for bright spots. If some kids were healthy despite their disadvantages, then that meant something important: Malnourishment was not inevitable. The mere existence of healthy kids provided hope for a practical, short-term solution. Sternin knew he couldn’t fix the thorny root causes. But if a handful of kids were staying healthy against the odds, why couldn’t every kid be healthy?
To understand what the bright spots were doing differently, the mothers first had to understand the typical eating behaviors in the community. So they talked to dozens of people – other mothers, fathers, older brothers and sisters, grandparents – and discovered that the norms were pretty clear: Kids ate twice a day along with the rest of their families, and they ate food that was deemed appropriate for children – soft, pure foods like the highest-quality rice.
Armed with that understanding, the mothers then observed the homes of the bright-spot kids, and, alert for any deviations, they noticed some unexpected habits. For one thing, bright-spot moms were feeding their kids four meals a day (using the same amount of food as other moms but spreading it across four servings rather than two). The larger, twice-a-day meals eaten by most families turned out to be a mistake for children, because their malnourished stomachs couldn’t process that much food at one time.
The style of eating was also different. Most parents believed that their kids understood their own needs and would feed themselves appropriately from a communal bowl. But the healthy kids were fed more actively – by hand if necessary. The children were even encouraged to eat when they were sick, which was not the norm.
Perhaps most interesting, the healthy kids were eating different kinds of food. The bright-spot mothers were collecting tiny shrimp and crabs from the rice paddies and mixing them in with their kids’ rice. (Shrimp and crabs were eaten by adults but they weren’t considered appropriate food for kids.) The mothers also tossed in sweet-potato greens, which were considered a low-class food. These dietary improvisations, however strange or “low class,” were doing something precious: adding sorely needed protein and vitamins to the children’s diet.
But knowing the solution wasn’t enough. For anything to change, lots of mothers would need to adopt the new cooking habits.
So the community designed a program in which 50 malnourished families, in groups of 10, would meet at a hut each day and prepare food together. The families were required to bring shrimp, crabs, and sweet-potato greens. The mothers washed their hands with soap and cooked the meal together. Sternin said that the moms were “acting their way into a new way of thinking.” Most important, it was their change, something that arose from the local wisdom of the village. Sternin’s role was only to help them see that they could do it, that they could conquer malnutrition on their own.
Dozens of experts had analyzed the situation in Vietnam, agonizing over the problems – the water supply, the sanitation, the poverty, the ignorance. They’d written position papers and research documents and development plans. But they hadn’t changed a thing.
Six months after Sternin’s visit to the Vietnamese village, 65% of the kids were better nourished – and they stayed that way.
Sternin’s success began to spread. “We took the first 14 villages in different phases of the program and turned them into a social laboratory,” he said. “People who wanted to replicate the nutrition model came from different parts of Vietnam. Every day, they would go to this living university, to these villages, touching, smelling, sniffing, watching, listening. They would ‘graduate,’ go to their villages, and implement the process until they got it right… . The program reached 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages. Our living university has become a national model for teaching villagers to reduce drastically malnutrition in Vietnam.”
You may not be fighting malnutrition, but if you’re trying to change things, there are going to be bright spots in your field of view. And if you learn to identify and understand them, you will solve one of the fundamental mysteries of change: What, exactly, needs to be done differently?
Chip Heath is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, teaching courses on business strategy and organizations. He is the co-author (along with his brother, Dan) of three books. Their latest book, Decisive: How to Make Better Decisions in Life and Work was published spring 2013 and debuted at #1 on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list and #2 on the New York Times. Their 2010 book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, hit #1 on both bestseller lists. Their first book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, spent two years on the Business Week bestseller list and was an Amazon Top 10 Business Book for both editors and readers. Their books have been translated into over 30 languages including Thai, Arabic, and Lithuanian. Chip has consulted with clients including Google, Gap, The Nature Conservancy, and the American Heart Association.
Dan Heath is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which supports social entrepreneurs. At CASE, he founded the Change Academy, a program designed to boost the impact of social sector leaders.
Dan is the co-author, along with his brother Chip, of three New York Times bestsellers: Decisive, Switch, and Made to Stick. Amazon.com’s editors named Switch one of the Best Nonfiction Books of the Year, and it spent 47 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. Made to Stick was named the Best Business Book of the Year and spent 24 months on the BusinessWeek bestseller list. Their books have been translated into over 30 languages.
Previously, Dan worked as a researcher and case writer for Harvard Business School. In 1997, Dan co-founded an innovative publishing company called Thinkwell, which continues to produce a radically reinvented line of college textbooks.
Dan has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from the Plan II Honors Program from the University of Texas at Austin. One proud geeky moment for Dan was his victory in the 2005 New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest, beating out 13,000 other entrants. He lives in Durham, NC.