Coaching Change: Can You Fix This?

What’s the best way to get people to start changing right away?

When I’m called in to coach organizations in their change efforts, I am often handed a bucket-full of problems: “Here, can you fix this?”

One of the main take-aways for me from the book Switch by Dan and Chip Heath is what is called “find the bright spots.” This key principle for change is clearly illustrated with the story of Jerry Sternin working for Save the Children in Vietnam in 1990.

The government had invited Save the Children to fight malnutrition, but when Sternin arrived it was made clear not everyone welcomed him. With minimal staff and meager resources, the foreign minister announced Sternin had six months to make a difference.

Sternin knew that malnutrition was an intertwined set of problems: poor sanitation, universal poverty, rural population ignorance and unclean water. All this was “TBU” – true, but useless information.

“Millions of kids can’t wait for those issues to be addressed,” Sternin said. He traveled to villages and met with groups of mothers. They divided into teams and went out to weigh and measure every child in their villages.

Then he asked the mothers, “Did you find any very, very poor kids who are bigger and healthier than the typical child?” They had. So Sternin went with the mothers to find out what these particular mothers were doing differently.

The strategy was to find the bright spots, successful efforts they could emulate. Sternin calls such outliers “positive deviants,” and Fast Company wrote about it in 2000.

If a handful of kids were staying healthy in spite of the problems, then there was a way for all the others.

It turned out these bright spot kids were being fed four times a day (using the same amounts of food the others were getting in two meals). And their mothers were collecting tiny shrimp and crabs from rice paddies and tossing in sweet-potato greens. They were getting added protein and vitamins to their diet.

But just knowing a solution wasn’t going to make mothers change behaviors. Sternin knew change would have to be their own initiative, in their own way. The communities organized cooking groups for the most malnourished families. The cooking classes changed the culture of the village, as it created social pressure to go along.

Six months after Sternin had come to Vietnam, 65 percent of the kids were better nourished and stayed that way. The program eventually reached 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages.

With no budget and certainly no power or influence, in a country where he couldn’t speak the language, Sternin was able to hone in on a small section of mothers who were already solving the problem, and to clone those solutions to the larger population.

He focused on what was working instead of what was wrong. How can we apply this strong lesson to our own bucket-full of problems?

Here’s the lessons I’ve gathered from this story:

  • Look for the bright spots. What’s working?
  • Don’t try to fix everything at once.
  • Don’t waste time looking at the historical antecedents of the problems.
  • Give people the opportunity to organize their solutions in their own way.

Find out what is working in spite of everything else. See if those bright spots can’t be replicated and scaled. Let people own the problem and the solutions.

What do you think about this? The next time someone hands you a bucket, why not try to find the one place or one group of people who seem to be doing better and start from there.

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