Collaboration, flexibility seen key to change

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

RALEIGH, N.C. — Sustaining the Triangle’s growth and making it a better place will depend on how well individuals and organizations can adapt to sweeping, rapid change and work together to fix the region’s most pressing social problems.

That message was the focus of What Matters, an event hosted by Triangle Community Foundation on April 1 at the Raleigh Convention Center.

Struggling in prosperity

The Triangle is home to stark contrasts, leaders of Triangle Community Foundation told the 450 civic and business leaders from throughout the Triangle at the event.

“In the midst of prosperity, many among us struggle daily to survive and thrive,” said Lacy Presnell III, chair of the Foundation’s board of directors and a lawyer at Raleigh firm Burns, Day & Presnell.

Lori O’Keefe, the Foundation’s president, said the Triangle is the fastest-growing region in the U.S. and ranks fourth in economic growth. Raleigh is the sixth-most-affordable city to live in, Durham is among the 10 most-educated cities, and the region’s quality of life ranks highest in the U.S., she said.

Yet four in 10 public-school students in the region are enrolled in a program for lunch that is free or at a reduced price, one in five children live in poverty, and nearly half of all home renters spend 30 percent or more of their incomes on housing costs, she said. And nearly one in five public school students who enter ninth grade do not graduate in four years, she said, while people of color earn $7 less an hour than whites.

“As proud as we are of this region,” she said, “we must not lose sight of the real challenges we face as we continue to grow.”

Framework for change

Making change happen requires “crystal clear direction about where we’re headed,” motivation for the emotional side of the brain, and the need to “shape the path,” make it easy to “get to from point A to point B, remove the obstacles, create a culture conducive to change,” author Dan Heath, senior fellow at the Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, said in his keynote speech at the event.

He cited a Stanford University study of a food drive in a single dormitory there. Testing the hypothesis that “there are nice people and they give, and there are jerks and they don’t,” the study canvassed the dorm to rank all students from the most to least kind.

Then it tested two versions of a letter promoting the food drive, with one version providing only basic instructions, and the other suggesting that, if students could not figure out what or how to donate, they should bring a can of beans and pick a time to drop off the can.

The second version provided a map showing where to drop off the donation. Among students who received the basic instructions, eight percent of the those identified as “saints” in the canvas and none identified as “jerks” donated food.

Among those who received the detailed instructions, 42 percent of the “saints” and 25 percent of the “jerks” made a donation.

Those findings suggest the food drive was “three times better off betting on a jerk with a map than a saint without one,” Heath said.

In times of change, he said, people are quick to put people “in buckets,” treating them as “saints and jerks,” he said.

“A crucial lesson for leaders of change,” he said, is that “when the path around us changes, people change, so we’ve got to be thoughtful about shaping the path.”

Shaping the path

A key to finding effective solutions to change is to “get better at meeting people where they are, shaping the path for them, not shaping the path” preferred by many advocates of change, Heath said.

He described a challenge faced at the airport in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where the men’s room had a problem with “spillage” that was “caused by poor aim.”

After considering a range of solutions, the committee decided to hire an artist who etched the likeness of a black housefly into every urinal in the men’s room.

Suggesting that the male psyche tended to see a target around the etching, which served as the bull’s eye, Heath said spillage in the men’s room immediately fell by 90 percent.

“We’ve got to shape the path to make change a little easier,” he said.

Bright spots

The social sector often gets so bogged down focusing on its ideal goal that it sometimes fails to see what is real and can lead to an effective solution, Heath said.

In the 1970s, he said, Jerry Sternin, director of Save the Children in Vietnam, wanted to fight child nutrition. Rather than address the problem’s root causes by trying to reform the education system, cure poverty and provide access to clean water, Heath said, Sternin focused on how families in a single village actually were feeding their children.

First, he identified which children in the village were well-nourished for their age, then watched how their parents prepared meals.

Most families in the village served their children two bowls of white rice a day, but the “bright-spot” mothers divided the same amount of rice into more meals during the day, making it easier for their children to digest more rice at each meal.

Sternin invited the “bright-spot” mothers to share the way they were preparing meals with other mothers in the village. Six months later, two-thirds of children in the village were better nourished. And after word of the success spread, leaders of other villages traveled to learn how the mothers in the village were preparing food.

Eventually, the more effective approach reached over 2.2 million Vietnamese in 265 villages, Heath said.

Sternin “did not cure child malnutrition in Vietnam,” Heath said. “But he put an enormous dent in the problem with a meager budget, and never solved any of the problems allegedly responsible for child malnutrition. That’s the power of looking at bright spots.”

So rather than “spending all your time obsessing about problems,” he said, community leaders should “steal some time to think about successes.”

Working together

The problems communities are trying to tackle, Heath said, are “daunting, long-standing, will not yield to easy solutions.”

And while it may not be apparent from day to day, he said, big changes do take place over time.

“Nothing great is ever accomplished easily,” he said. “But together, we’ll make it possible.”

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