I love Jamie Oliver – he’s by far my favorite celebrity chef.  Every since I first saw him stuff a leg of lamb, I knew he was my ‘culinary muse’.  Over the last few years, he’s been on a mission to change the eating habits of various communities, including schools in the UK and US.

In 2009, he decided to tackle Huntington, a city that had received the dubious honour of being named the unhealthiest city in the United States by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  He really had his work cut out for him.  Even though the community of 50,000 had the highest rates of heart disease and diabetes in the country, and half the adults were considered obese, change would not come easy to them. For most people, changing their eating habits involve confronting deep seated beliefs and mind-sets.  Therefore I believe that there is much to learn from Jamie’s change journey with this community, especially for leaders who need to change the behaviours of communities within their organisations.

A recent article in Strategy+Business lists the following lessons that we can learn from Jamie:

As one watches the process unfold in the TV series Food Revolution, it’s clear that Jamie’s success in large part on his willingness to experiment, learn, and intuitively shift gears on the fly.

He began his West Virginia campaign the way many leaders of change begin: with exhortations and slogans about the new behaviors needed to eat and live in a healthy manner. “I’ve been in South Africa, in the townships,” he told a group of school cafeteria cooks at one point, “and they’re getting better food than your American kids.” But he soon discovered that he could not force or persuade people to change their minds. Instead, he made it easier for them to change their habits first, while keeping their own views and values.

There are 4 main points mentioned in the article, which will be covered in a series of posts.

1. Learn the local culture (don’t assume anything!)

Initially Jamie came to Huntington confident that his knowledge and charisma will pursuade the community to change their ways.  He was surprised by the level of opposition he encountered, with many influential people openly questionning his motives.  Although difficult, this first stage of the process was very important, not from the perspective of what Jamie taught the town, but what the town taught him. “He assumed a great deal about the town’s receptivity and its nature, underestimating the cumulative power of inertia and collective attitudes. Once he realized that the resistance came from a culture, rather than from individuals, he set out to learn about that culture instead of trying to defeat it outright. As he said at the end of the first episode, Huntington “is not a statistic. It’s a town. It’s a community. It’s a family.” “

How often do leaders assume that they know what drives the behaviours and attitudes of their people?  In Jamie’s case, he was new to the culture and therefore based his assumptions on past experiences in other cultures.  But familiarity can lead to the a similar problem.  Leaders need to take a position of curiosity, exploring their organisations as if for the first time to really get to grips with what is actually happening in their environments, and not make assumptions that could lead to a blind-side that could sink their change initiatives.

One thing that we do know about people is that they are unpredictable, especially when facing a change initiative.  Most people are very uncomfortable with anything unfamiiar, and leaders are often faced with having to deal with various defense mechanisms.  Something that becomes very clear in examining Jamie’s quest to change eating habits that were killing this community, is how big a role our identities play.  The way we think and perceive the world is inextricably linked to who we are – or who we think we are.  Whenever someone challenges the status quo, or challenges a deeply held belief, people perceive that their identity is being threatened and they close ranks.  Understanding these identities and the beliefs that support them and finding unthreatening ways to introduce new paradigms is key when attempting large scale (or even smaller scale) behaviour change.

In my next post we’ll look at the next lesson we can learn from Jamie: Demonstrate success

If possible, I highly recommend finding and watching the series (Jamie’s Food Revolution) as it is fascinating to watch the dynamics unfold between the various stakeholders.