As Jamie entrenched himself in the community of Huntington, it became clear how big and complex the task ahead of him really was. The divide between the knowledge he wanted to impart to the community, and the level they were at at that time, were miles apart. How do you educate a community about healthy eating habits if first graders couldn’t identify a tomato (they insisted it was a potato) and many others (adults and children) did not know how to use a knife and fork after years of eating junk food that only require their hands. One of the key target audiences for Jamie’s message, the schools, didn’t even supply knives and forks in their cafeterias as the food on their menus didn’t require them. So simply changing the menu wouldn’t work.
It soon became clear that simply providing information, however compelling, would not be enough to change the eating habits of this community. He needed to shift their mind sets and get them to think differently about the food they ate. To do this, he started small and experimented. First, he tried to change the eating habits of a single family. When this didn’t prove to be sustainable, he tried something else. He decided to focus on one vegetable: the humble pea. He went all out to convince the children of Huntington that peas are in fact edible. He dressed himself up in a green pea costume and raced around the school grounds to engage as many children as possible. He even renamed the two finger peace sign, to the “peas” sign and endlessly cajoled and charmed the kids. He handed out stickers as rewards for the ones who tried the new vegetable that read “I’ve tried something new”. In short – he went all out to gain one small victory. At the end of the day, although not every child joined in the effort, many peas had been eaten, and Jamie had laid a foundation for further and deeper change. The peas became a first proof, a small piece of evidence drawn from direct experience that Jamie’s vision could be possible. He’d demonstrated among other things that:
“children could eat healthy food enthusiastically, that they could accept a change agent as a leader, that they could support one another without ridicule as pea-eating peers, and that all of this might actually be good for them”.
Often in change projects, especially when the community is resistant to the change, leaders also need to find these proof points, or small evidences that support their change message. They can be aimed at specific groupings within the community who have a lot of influence, especially those areas where the change is most needed. Choose those people who’s participation you need the most, and show them (and others) that they are able to adopt new behaviours and change the way they think.
Don’t be afraid of starting small, like Jamie did with the humble pea. A small positive pattern can easiliy be amplified to facilitate the bigger change. Stories can also be used with a lot of success to communicate these small victories to the larger audience. Often, if one pays attention, it’s possible to find instances where the desired behaviour is already occuring naturally. For example, if the need for change is to cut cost, find areas in the business where people are already naturally exhibiting the required behavior and share the stories with the rest of the company to show them what’s possible.
Often, the biggest mistake that is made in change initiatives is to try to do too much too quickly. Jamie’s experimental approach, starting small to see what works and building from there is a much more appropriate approach to facilitate change in a complex system.