Power of Small Changes

Jerry Sternin, who worked for Save the Children in 1990, was asked by the government to open an office in Vietnam to fight malnutrition in rural villages. When he arrived with his family he was told by the Vietnamese government he had six months to show results.

Sternin didn't speak Vietnamese and had only meager resources. He understood the magnitude of the problem in rural Vietnam where sanitation was poor, clean water was not available and villagers knew little about nutrition.

Instead of trying to send out nutrition advisories or seek financing to build infrastructure, Sternin did some quite different. He gathered mothers from several villages and asked them to weigh and measure every child in their village.

When he looked at the results, Sternin noticed some children were thriving, despite the insurmountable odds. He asked the village mothers to go back and ask what the mothers of thriving children were doing. They returned with a fairly uniform finding. Families with thriving children fed them more often (four times a day versus the more typical twice daily regimen,) and mothers amped up their rice by adding shrimp and sweet potato greens, ingredients that were readily available.

Sternin shunned a formal announcement of this startling discovery. Instead he worked with village leaders to set up a series of cooking demonstrations in which successful mothers shared their knowledge, including washing their hands before preparing food, with mothers of malnourished children.

What began as an experiment in a handful of villages exploded by word of mouth to more than 250 villages, impacting 2.2 million Vietnamese people.

This story, which is told by Chip and Dan Heath in their new book, "Switch," illustrates the power of small change.

Sternin didn't try to change the world. His circumstances demanded focus on a small change that could lead to big change.

Today we face seemingly intractable problems, such as dysfunctional families, climate change and withering debt. It is easy to become overwhelmed. It also is easy to succumb to inaction because problems are too complicated and solutions too daunting.

The message of "Switch" is that change can occur when problems and their solutions are shrunk in size. Few people can think about the cosmos in the same way as Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking. Most of us do best when the problem we face is manageable and we can see the first few steps toward a solution.

Leaders, politicians and communicators should take note. Don't tell people a problem is too difficult to tackle. Rather, reduce problems to human scale. Then frame solutions that people will embrace with their hearts and minds. Show people how to take that fateful first small step toward big change.

["Switch" was recently released by Broadway Books. Chip and Dan Heath also are the authors of "Made to Stick," a book about how to make lasting impressions with "sticky" ideas and effective storytelling.]