3 Ways to Ensure the Social Impact Movement Sticksback

I was delighted to learn that Dan Heath, author of the book I’m currently reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, was the closing keynote speaker for the Social Impact Exchange Conference.I think all the conference speakers were in agreement that we’re at a tipping point. Dan gave practical advice to ensure that what might be a fleeting fad becomes a trend that takes hold and spreads like wildfire. He did this using three stories.

Lesson One

In 1990, Jerry Sternin of Save the Children was given six months to make a difference in malnutrition in Vietnam. He knew the root causes of malnutrition: poor sanitation, nearly universal poverty, lack of readily available clean water, and nutritional ignorance. All “TBU” – true but useless – information. All these problems were worth fixing, but doing so was not possible within the time frame and budget he’d been given.

To make a dent in malnutrition in Vietnam in the short term, Jerry needed a solution that could be implemented quickly, easily, and with very little money. His approach was to look for bright spots – successful efforts worth emulating. He asked women in the rural villages he visited to find out which kids were healthy despite the general disadvantages and what their families did differently.

The research found:

  • Bright-spot mothers fed their children four times a day instead of the conventional two. The same amount of food was served, just more frequently. Malnourished stomachs can’t process very much food at one time. If you want to learn how you can use bright-spot, watch this video.

  • Healthy kids were fed more actively – hand-fed by parents if necessary.
  • Finally, these children were given tiny shrimp and crabs from rice paddies and sweet-potato greens that were not regarded as appropriate for children.

How do you develop new cooking habits based on these insights? Rather than making an announcement that most people would probably ignore, Sternin formed cooking groups so mothers could “act their way into a new way of thinking.” Best of all, the solution was found within the community rather than outside the community.

The lesson: Make solutions doable. The nonprofit sector needs to demonstrate success with easy, quick wins. Some programs are working; grow and scale these. Systemically figure out what’s working and what’s not, then share the information. This can provide needed early direction.

Lesson Two

Jon Stregner thought his company could save $1 billion over five years if purchasing was aggregated. He needed to make his point in a compelling way so people would listen. He had a summer intern analyze the number of different kinds of work gloves used and the range of prices. The results: 424 different kinds of work gloves were used throughout the company; they ranged in price from a low $5 to a high of $17.

Rather than make his point analytically using spreadsheets that would make his audience glaze over, Stregner built a Glove Shrine on the conference table in the boardroom and invited all the division presidents to see it. All 424 different types of gloves were tagged with their price and stacked on the conference room table. The reaction was universal: This is crazy. We can fix this. And so they did.

The old way of thinking was: Analyze, Think, Change

However, just because we analyze it and understand what needs to be done doesn’t mean that things will change.

The new new way of thinking: See, Feel, Change

The lesson: Seeing it so you feel it makes you do the change. Emotion is a much stronger driver than logic.

Lesson Three

Now, who would have thought that it would take an economist to solve the urinal spillage problem of busy restrooms in the Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam. Men’s bad aim has some unpleasant consequences, which I will not detail. His solution: etching the image of a fly onto the bowls. The result: Spillage declined 80 percent. It turns out that if you give men a target, they can’t help but aim at it.

The lesson: Sometimes the situation, not the person, is blocking change. The economist changed the environment to improve aim. My conclusion: When you’re too close to a situation, bring in new eyes to see the problem differently. These new eyes can be business people.

Bonus Lesson

No story for the final point, but it’s an important one nonetheless. Dan quoted Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Everything looks like a failure in the middle.” 

The Lesson: Don’t be discouraged if the beginning of any change is sloppy and messy; if you can live with ambiguity, the beginning is the most fun.

How have you made change happen? What techniques work best? What obstacles have you met?

For complete coverage of the 2010 inaugural Social Impact Exchange Conference: Taking Successful Innovation to Scale, go to Ventureneer SIEX10.