In a tragic incident at the New Delhi railway station last Sunday, last minute change of platform for two Bihar-bound trains triggered a stampede, leaving two dead and a dozen people injured. Mamata Banerjee, India’s railway minister, says, “It is not a failure of administration. People are responsible for such chaos." Mamata Banerjee’s knee-jerk reaction to this incident is, in fact, a common phenomena known in psychology as “Fundamental Attribution Error”. It says we have a systematic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. However, the fact is - What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. Is it possible to look at the situation that caused this tragedy? And is it possible to improve things at the platform so that chances of such a tragedy are reduced not only in Delhi station but all stations in India? The book “Switch: How to change things when change is hard” written by two brothers, Chip & Dan Heath, gives us a hope. In fact, the book gives a lot more than just a hope. It is gives a sound framework which is actionable.
Switch is a book to help you change things. It considers change at every level – individual, organizational and societal. May be you want to help your brother beat his gambling addiction. May be you need your team to become more innovative. May be you want to reduce stampede injuries in temples and railway stations. Heath brothers point out that the underlying principles in all kinds of changes are the same. It involves the same mission: Can you get people to start behaving in a new way? Unfortunately, we all have a built-in schizophrenia. One size of the brain is emotional and the other side is rational. And most problems arise because the two sides often don’t agree.
One of my favorite stories from the book is about a social worker, Jerry Sternin. In 1990 Sternin working for Save the Children, the international organization that helps children in need, arrived in Vietnam to help the country fight malnutrition. The minister told Sternin, “You have six months to make a difference”. Sternin did not get into solving the root-causes like the poor sanitation, poverty, education etc. Instead, he mobilized village moms into finding kids who are poor & healthy. Then he asked, “What are the moms of these kids doing differently?” It turned out that the poor-and-healthy-kids moms were doing a few things differently. One, they were feeding their kids four meals a day (using the same amount of food as the other moms). Two, they were proactively feeding their kids rather than letting the kids decide how much to eat. Three, they were feeding different kinds of food – tiny shrimps and crabs from the rice paddies and mixing them with rice. With this knowledge, Sternin designed a community program in which fifty malnourished families, in groups of ten, would meet at a hut each day and prepare food. 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 says, “The moms were acting their way into a new way of thinking”. Six months after Sternin had come to Vietnamese village, 65 percent of the kids were better nourished and stayed it that way.
Heath brothers call Sternin’s method “Follow the bright spots”. It asks the question, “What is working already? And can we do more of it?” Perhaps a solution to Mamata Banarjee’s railway station stampede problem already resides in Chennai or Kolkata or Mumbai. Like Sternin, we may have to find the bright spots first.
Switch gives several techniques such as “Follow the bright spots” in bringing about a change. There are several resources including the first chapter of the book available free at Heath brothers’ web-site. I consider change management to be one of the three pillars of systematic innovation. I won’t be surprised if Switch becomes one of my textbooks.
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