Big problems. Big Ideas. That’s what you would expect. How can all the colossal problems plaguing our world be solved without a big idea right? From malnutrition to obesity. Let’s call in the experts so they can undertake a deep analysis of everything we know about the problem, look at every data point there is, get to the root causes and suggest possible scenarios. One of them aught to work right? Got a personal problem? Go to a psychiatrist and what would they do? Psychoanalyze you to the core. “Your lack of confidence could be related to some childhood incident that is deeply affecting you” they say. Is that the only way to solve a problem? Do you you really need to understand everything there is to know before you can reach a solution?
Marriage therapist Michele Weiner-Davis was a classical psychoanalyst. She believed that a deep archaeology of her subjects and their individual lives was the only way to help couples resolve their issues. That is until she discovered the idea of solution-focused therapy. The concept that you don’t need to understand everything about a problem to solve it was a paradigm shift for her. A big idea I dare say! She used an interesting analogy of golf to explain what she meant. Having trouble with her swing she went to a golf pro thinking she would need a major overhaul of her technique. But what did the golf pro do? Did he undertake a deep study of her life? Did he say that she had a deep fear of winning owing to the frayed relationship she had with her parents when she was a kid? Nope. After a few observations he simply told her to loosen her grip. With all that money spent on a golf pro she was expecting something more profound and all he had to say was “loosen your grip”! Not impressed at first she tried what he said and “voila!” The solution worked. She was hitting the ball straighter and farther. A small idea that changed her game. Not convinced?
Let’s look at two food-related examples each from an extreme end of the problem. One is related to obesity and the other to malnutrition.
Over-eating. Over-consuming. It’s an age old problem in the developed world. With an abundance of food we have far more calories available per person at almost an arm’s length than we could have ever imagined. Long gone are the hunter-gatherer days where each day was a challenge for survival. If you can’t find or hunt your meal you are a goner. Today survival depends on self-control and exercise. How is that working for you? Tell me one person in the world who does not believe in healthy eating and exercising. I am sure if you a did a quick survey you will find everyone agreeing with you. Reality we all know is far from it. So what is the big idea? There is none. But there is one very simple, small idea.
In his book Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink talked about an experiment he conducted at a movie theatre in which he took stale popcorns and put them in two large tubs. One was larger than the other but both were big enough to a point that it would be very hard for anyone to eat the full bucket. And by stale we are talking about squeaky stale! So what were the key findings? People with the larger tub ate 53% more than the other group. Keeping everything else constant the conclusion from this study was simple. Bigger container = more eating. The most interesting aspect of this study was the denial of the results when the respondents were confronted with this finding. They simply couldn’t accept that they ate more simply because the bucket they were given was larger. So how can we solve the problem of over eating? Simple. Change the size of the bucket or plate that you eat in. You don’t need no research on demographics or psychographics to replicate this one. Globally applicable. No restrictions whatsoever. Just start using a smaller container. Now here is a small idea!
Let’s look at another example. Vietnam. Major malnutrition among kids. Limited budget. Here is a man with a mission to solve this problem. Jerry Sternin from Save the Children. What does he do? No analysis paralysis here. He was driven by a simple premise, “knowledge does not change behavior”. He simply looked for healthy kids in a village where he first started working. Despite an acute malnutrition problem if there were healthy kids in that same village then their mothers must be doing something right. And what was that? After first observing what everyone else did, he sought to understand what the mothers of these healthy kids were doing differently. He found three differences. Instead of feeding their kids two meals a day they were feeding the same amount of food split into four meals. Second they were actively feeding them, making sure that they completed their portion, even hand-feeding them if required rather than letting them eat out of the communal bowl assuming they would feed themselves. Lastly he noticed that instead of feeding them just rice like everyone else they would mix it up with shrimp, crab and sweet-potato greens. All three ingredients were commonly available to all. It turns out that these seemingly minor modifications were adding the much needed proteins and vitamins to their children’s diet.
Having found the solution he didn’t want to just tell them what to do but he wanted them to learn the solution by practicing it instead. So he took fifty mothers with malnourished kids and gave them specific instructions to feed their kids rice using shrimps, crabs and sweet-potato greens. The Result? These modifications were enough to address the problem. He did not import a solution that worked elsewhere, something that would take a lot of resources to replicate but instead he helped them discover a zero-cost solution on their own. By doing so he also addressed the “not invented here bias”. By focusing on the bright spots he showed everyone in the village that there is a way to solve their problem on their own. It was their solution and they owned it. Within six months 65% of the kids were better nourished and stayed that way. The word of his success quickly spread. Eventually the program reached 2.2 million Vietnamese people across 265 villages drastically reducing malnutrition in the country. Again a small idea that solved a big problem. No big ideas. No big budgets.
So here are two small ideas that change the world. Why they worked? Because the solutions focused on what worked instead of what didn’t and then replicated those ideas at a larger level. There are many more such ideas and insights in Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Switch” which I look forward to covering in future blog posts here. Do let me know what you think of these ideas and feel share to share your experiences and ideas in the comments section below.