Saturday, March 20, 2010

Success Stories Inspire Successful Programs

Counselors, program analysts, and researchers are often great problem-solvers. They have excellent skills for defining a problem, analyzing it, and then finding a solution. Problem solving is an important skill, but problem solvers may find themselves looking at the big picture and missing a simple solution. A recent article in Fast Company magazine, taken from the book, “Switch: How to Change When Change Is Hard,” describes a unique approach to change. The authors begin by looking at what is working, rather than what is broken. Then they find ways to duplicate the success that exists.

One anecdotal success story in the article describes an employee of "Save the Children" who goes to Vietnam in 1990 to fight widespread malnutrition. The contributing problems of poverty, poor sanitation, and impure water systems seemed overwhelming and were out of the control of the organization. So rather than trying to solve everything that wasn’t working, the managers looked for children who lived in poor conditions but were not malnourished.

The company’s research showed that the mothers of children who were not suffering from malnutrition had slight differences in their cooking and eating habits. To improve the eating habits of children suffering from malnutrition, a community designed program for malnourished families was set up. The mothers learned new behaviors that soon became habits. Practicing healthy actions helped the women change their thinking. The change arose from knowledge gleaned from their own community rather than instituting strategies designed by outsiders. As a result of their work, the article states that 65% of the kids learned and maintained better nutrition.

As a personal/career coach and program manager, I learn from the experts, but then I look at the needs of the community. It is important to find out what systems and habits are working well. While managing the Pathways to Success Program for a nonprofit serving the homeless, I found the general wisdom was the belief that people first need a stable home before they can get a job. Paying for a home without an income is impossible for many people. Interestingly, I learned that it wasn’t always the people who had an address that got the job. After starting a career center, facilitating workshops, and implementing career coaching programs, I found that those with good job search skills, self-esteem, a cell phone, and professional clothes were often the ones who got the job. I was able to offer workshops, provide accountability, and assist in helping people find professional clothes. I couldn’t solve the homeless problem, but I could help people develop better relationships, lifestyle habits, and job search skills that helped participants with no home find a job.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Fast Company,
February 1, 2010, Issue 142, Dan and Chip Heath,, online 3/15/10.

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