The Bright Spots–From the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit

By Lee Fox for Cause Capitalism.

I sit in a room filled with a SEA of bright minds, who just like me, aspire to change the world for the better one way or another.  Over 700 of us are gathered at the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit & World Forum to hear Chip Heath, author and professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, speak.

I wonder briefly how Chip will go about sharing with us how to engage all sectors and whether systems thinking will help us gain traction, which is the title of his keynote.

He starts with a story:

In 1990 Save The Children sent  Jerry Sternin to Vietnam for the purpose of addressing a problem of enormous magnitude with a 6-month timeline.  He was tasked to recommend how to prevent the deaths and disease associated with childhood malnutrition for that particular region of the world.

Armed with volumes of research statistics, Jerry pondered (as so many social entrepreneurs do) how he was going to successfully tackle such a large-scale issue.  His epiphany and eventual triumph came by abandoning the researched data about malnutrition in favor of his T.B.U. theory — in his mind, all the data results were True, But Useless to resolving childhood malnutrition.

In his estimation, the data reflected the worst problems, but shed no light on why certain children were not as unhealthy, despite access to the same food sources.

He called a “meeting of mothers” in a small village, asking them to bring in their children to be weighed and measured.  His goal was to identify the healthiest children and focus only on them to see what the mom’s might be doing differently from other families.  He called these mothers his “bright spots.”

Available to the villagers were three food staples: white rice, brine shrimp and sweet potato shavings.  It was the custom to feed children the “purest” white rice, as it was considered the healthiest.  Adults, on the other hand, would settle for rice which hadn’t separated properly from their husks.  They would also flavor their rice with brine shrimp and sweet potato shavings.  In looking at the practices of the bright spot moms, Jerry noticed they more habitually didn’t give their children the purest white rice and would often serve children the same variety ingredients as their adult counterparts.  The children of the bright spot moms were healthier because they had a more balanced diet.

In heralding the health of these children and the cuisine of the bright spot moms, Jerry was able to move an entire village and then region into new behaviors which turned what seemed like an insurmountable challenge into an achievement.

In telling the story, Chip illustrated a clear concept of systems thinking — or the practice of understanding how multiple things influence one another within a whole.   Systems thinking focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect.  When “problems” are viewed as parts of an overall system, we can prevent ourselves from reacting to a specific part, outcome or event (which might otherwise potentially contribute to further developments with unintended consequences).  Within the framework is the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation.

As social entrepreneurs tackle their worst problems, they should be reminded of the lessons in Jerry’s story.

1)     Change does not start with pure analytics

2)     When collecting data around a problem, look for both the failures and the bright spots

3)     Consider what emotional and cultural connections exist relative to the problem

4)     Find ways that you can tweak the environment by heralding the bright spots

In essence, our job as social entrepreneurs is to take away all barriers that otherwise prevent people from taking the right actions.  Whether we are in the field or in the boardroom, we need to move our cause stakeholders towards an emotional understanding of the problematic data.

Additionally, systems thinking requires a profound shift in how social entrepreneurs should tell their story to stakeholders.  Putting a bunch of analytics in front of our would-be donors or investors is not engaging.  We need them to get them at the human level, and use the data to back us up.

Image credit: Sharon Hahn Darlin

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