Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (review)

Can you get families to eat healthier food, delinquent students to start showing up on time, businesses and governments to save millions of dollars by buying smarter, all by learning one set of concepts?  Chip & Dan Heath think so.  In Switch, they lay out a basic framework for all kinds of change, from the individual to the social level--and they tell stories to show how to make the changes.

The framework: Each of us is a Rider (rational mind) trying to direct an Elephant (emotional side) along a Path (the environment we're operating in).  To make a change, all three have to pull together.  Why don't they?

"What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity." The Heaths show how you can help the Rider in yourself, your colleagues, or your fellow citizens by making it clearer exactly what they need to do.  If you can find a few bright, shining examples of what works, for instance, you can get other people to adopt that approach.  Not everyone will go along, but if enough people buy in, a little change in behavior can lead to a big change in the result.

"What looks like laziness is often exhaustion." We have a limited amount of self-control. A small rational Rider can only tug on the reins of a big emotional Elephant for so long!  And the rational side of us may plan forever and not get around to acting--I've heard this called "analysis paralysis."  The trick is to get motivated to do what we know would make a difference.  The authors show us how to take changes in small steps and aim for early victories.  They also show how we can cultivate the belief that we are capable of change...which is key to being able to make the change we seek.

"What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem."  If we can make it easier for people to do something different, more of them will.  If we can encourage new habits, those habits will take a lot of the stress and strain out of change.  "Behavior is contagious," so show that a lot of other people are doing the right thing and you will get even more people to join them.  (This is a concept I've heard people call "social marketing," and it's one of the big reasons that fewer people smoke tobacco today.)

The Heaths illustrate all these concepts with stories that are "made to stick" in your mind (to use the title of one of their previous books).  Here's one that pulls all three together:

In 2004, 1 out of every 10 patients in the U.S. received defective medical care.  For instance, they "did not receive their antibiotics in the specified time."  So, "thousands of patients were dying every year, unnecessarily.  Dr. Donald Berwick set out to change that.
  • He proposed that the medical industry save 100,000 lives in 18 months, and he gave them six specific ways to do it.  (Clarity, for the Rider.)  
  • He brought in a mom whose little girl had been killed by a medical error.  She told the hospitals, "I know that if this campaign had been in place four or five years ago, that Josie would be fine." (Motivation, for the Elephant.  What greater motivation is there for a healthcare professional than saving the life of a child?)
  • He made it easy for hospitals to join the campaign (by signing a one-page form) and brought them together in conferences where they could see how others just like them were succeeding.  (Smoothing the Path)
As a result. by the set date, the campaign had saved 122,300 lives, "the equivalent of throwing a life preserver to every man, woman, and child in Ann Arbor, Michigan."

Now, I am not convinced that this formula for change will always work.  I agree with the Heaths that even a marginal improvement is better than none, and their techniques will work when there is no entrenched and powerful opposition to the change you have in mind.  You can probably lose weight this way.  You can very likely get more people where you work to respond to their email. 

If you are trying to raise the minimum wage, or end global warming, or stop a war, you are going to need more.  As Frederick Douglass famously said, "Power concedes nothing without a struggle."  For struggle, you need a movement.  You cannot throw a behavioral switch. 

Even a social movement would have something to learn by reading this book, however, and for most of us, most of the time, this framework will be a powerful set of tools.  I strongly recommend reading this book and then going to work on making change where you live.

Who Cares? The Need for Personalized Communication

Today I received a letter in the mail from my health insurance company.  You are taking a certain medicine, they said, so every year, you should have a certain kind of blood test.  Are you doing that?  Will you ask you doctor to make sure?

The company called the letter a Care Alert, and everything in it reinforced the message, "We Care."  The envelope didn't: it looked as if it might have been one of those Explanations of Benefits that don't explain anything at all.  And of course, one of the reasons they care is that if I look out for myself, I can avoid serious health risks that would end up costing the insurance company a lot. 

Still, the message itself was caring.  It was personalized, and it treated me like a responsible adult who can make good decisions with the proper information.

I would like to propose that nonprofits aim at making all their communications as personal and as caring as the letter I received.

What would it take to do that?
  1. Knowing, and remembering, a lot about your supporters. 
  2. Thinking, "How can I make my agency useful to this person?"  What topics matter to him or her?  What information would she or he find useful--not in a general way, but here and now?  
  3. Calling on them to take action...and showing them how.
The tools exist to make all this possible.  Databases, constituent relationship management software and processes, email tools, various programs that remind you it's time to send this kind of message to this specific person: they're out there, and not that expensive.

But is your organization willing to spend the time and attention it takes to treating every client, constituent, prospect, or donor with at least as much care as a health insurance company showed to me?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Breaking a Hardened Heart: Parshat Va'era

The second week's reading from the book of Exodus says repeatedly that when Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and gave him God's message "Let my people go," Pharaoh "hardened his heart, and did not listen."  That makes it seem as if the Egyptian ruler simply and freely decided he wanted to keep on enslaving the Israelites no matter what. 

Yet the text also says that Pharaoh did not listen to them "as God had said." That addition makes it seem as if Pharaoh's free will was in fact quite limited, since his choice was predictable.  Exodus also describes Pharaoh's reaction to God's message in a third way: "God hardened Pharaoh's heart."  And that makes it seem as if Pharaoh had no choice in the matter at all. 

How can we make sense of these apparently different readings, and what can we learn from them?

Traditional Jewish sources have come up with more than one way to understand the hardening of Pharaoh's heart.  One interpretation says free will and an all-knowing God can indeed coexist.  "The Bible is clear that God has a role in determining human affairs, and equally clear that, in most cases, human beings have the ability to choose between right and wrong," as correctly summarized at myjewishlearning.com.   "Everything is foreseen; yet free will is given" (Rabbi Akiva, Pirkei Avoth 3:15).  On this view, God can know that Pharaoh may possibly harden his own heart--or that he will choose to--or God may even intervene to make it more likely--and yet the choice is ultimately up to Pharaoh. 

Other interpretations are equally possible.  We could read "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" as an idiomatic expression.  Why in the world would Pharaoh react so harshly and continue so obstinately?  It defies normal human behavior.  It is unexplainable in human terms.  Things that are unexplainable are attributed to God.  (Insurance companies do the same thing today when they call certain natural disasters "acts of God" and refuse to insure against them!) 

Or, we could say that Pharaoh begins by hardening his own heart against the suffering of the enslaved Israelites and their hope of redemption, and that hardness becomes a habit.  By the end of this week's reading, refusal has become a part of him: it is his character.  He desires to become unchangeable in a way that no human being can be.  He desires to become God.  And the desire to become God hardens Pharaoh's heart. 

Avivah Zornberg, in The Particulars of Rapture, argues for that last interpretation.  She points out that in Egypt, rulers did claim to be gods.  They postulated that they had created the Nile, when the Nile had created Egyptian civilization and given the Pharaohs their power.  They believed that the well-being of the land depended on them, when of course it was the reverse. 

To admit human frailty (using my political terms here, rather than Zornberg's psychoanalytic terms) would be to de-legitimize their own rule.  So the Pharaoh of the Exodus story heroically refuses to admit that he is anything less than God, over and over...until the death of his firstborn son finally makes him face his own humanity and mortality.

What can we learn from this story?  I think, actually, it is a question of how we can learn.  Will we try to make ourselves impermeable to persuasion, like Pharaoh?  Then we risk being taught a heartbreaking lesson. 

Can we open ourselves to the voice of the weak, the oppressed, the unexpected, or the amazing?  Then we invite the possibility of learning something new, like Moses standing before a burning bush and hearing the voice that commands freedom.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Without Charity

Maimonides taught that out of seven levels of charity, the highest level is teaching a person a profession, so that he or she will never have to depend on charity again.  My teacher, Arnold Jacob Wolf, used to say that there was an eighth, higher level: creating a society where no one has to depend on charity.  (As Rabbenu Karl Marx wrote, "From each according to his [sic] abilities, to each according to his needs."

I want to follow Rabbi Wolf's example by taking another inspiring thought and expanding it from the individual to the social.  Here it is:

Last week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, includes rules and instructions on how to act with integrity in business.  This week's portion, T'rumah, is all about building the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried around for forty years in the desert.  The editor of Etz Hayim comments, "...it teaches that only after we make our living honestly can we give any proceeds to charity."

This is an inspiring thought, but let's take it social. 
  • Let's provide full employment, then give to charity.
  • Let's guarantee a living wage, then give to charity.
  • Let's make sure that the gap between women's incomes and men's disappears, then give to charity.
  • Let's make sure there's affordable child care, health care, housing, college education, continuing education, food, and heat, plus paid sick days and parental leave, plus a guaranteed comfortable retirement for anyone who works, plus support for anyone whose disability prevents them from working for pay...and then, and only then, give to charity.
If we do all this, then (as Rabbi Wolf suggested) we may have a society where no individual has to depend on charity. Let's start today!

Friday, February 15, 2013

You Don't Have to Be Religious to Learn Talmud

I was moved, intrigued, amused, and delighted with the following speech by a secular member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament).  Within her coexist an appreciation for the wisdom to be found in Jewish texts and a sharp, independent spirit.  I hope those elements can coexist within the Jewish community as a whole, too.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Obama's Two Speeches

Last night, President Obama's State of the Union address was a tale of two speeches.  The first one was disappointing.  The second offered signs of hope.


The beginning of the speech was a fairly routine laundry list of Obama's legislative agenda.  I agreed with a lot of it, and I was dismayed that Obama gives so much credence to the talk about cutting the deficit.  That is bad policy, and it undermines the rest of his policies. 

But the problem with Obama's first speech was not any of the particular policies he enunciated.  The main thing was that it was a list.  Lists by their nature are uninspiring.  We write down lists precisely because unless we keep referring to them, we'll forget what's on them. They are not inherently memorable.  They are not self-enforcing.  Obama kept saying, "Let's get it done."  But to-do lists never get done unless the people who can make them happen are motivated to do so.

The people who can make Obama's agenda happen are...the people.  Obama needed to motivate and activate his supporters, the ones who elected him and want great things from him. People in Congress are not opposed to "getting things done."  Many of them (including some in his own party) are opposed to his specific agenda.  To keep the heat on Congress, and to overcome the determined opposition, he needed to give the "hope and change" constituency a rallying cry and a framework within which they could unite and work together.  Did he do that?

The second speech offered the rallying cry: "They deserve a vote."  Obama was most directly talking about victims of gun violence, who deserve to have legislation aimed at preventing future tragedies debated and voted up or down, not smothered in committee or squelched through the filibuster. 

But in context, that theme is broader.  It singles out an increasingly isolated group of conservative white men and their allies who are out of step with the country on issue after issue and yet use their positions of power to block action.  By not even allowing the proposals to come up for a vote, they say to the rest of the country--the 47% that Romney wrote off, or the 99% who have not gained an inch and have even lost ground for the past thirty years--"We know what's good for you.  Your concerns don't matter."

Obama won the election in part by telling a diverse range of people that their concerns DO matter.  At the end of that speech, he repeated that vision of America as a place where people have to be listened to.  Sometimes, we call that vision democracy.  It is Obama's winning message, and his best hope for getting the power of the people behind him.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Chopsticks, Hammers, and Social Media

My dear father could never master the use of chopsticks.  He resented people who did.  Whenever we went out to a Chinese restaurant and other people reached for the sticks, he would grumble, "A fork has always been good enough for me.  I don't know why it's not good enough for you." 

I think of my father sometimes when I hear colleagues ask why they need to use social media.  I'm a big believer in print, video, and face-to-face contact myself, but I have to wonder: how much resistance to adopting social media comes from the fear that we won't use them well?  That we'll be still dabbing away with tools we don't understand while other people have eaten our lunch?

This fear is unnecessary.  Anyone can learn to use social media well enough for company.  Once we stop worrying about how to master them, then we can really ask why--and get good answers.

Contrary to what enthusiasts sometimes think, it is not self-evident why organizations should use social media. I see people who leap on board each social media trend as it comes along.  They remind me of the saying, "To the person who owns a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  Social media are tools.  One size doesn't fit all.  We need to know what they can do, and what we want to accomplish.  Then, we can pick the right tool for the job.

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to figure out what we really need, whether we are communications conservatives or early adopters:
  1. Who are we trying to reach?
  2. Where does our audience spend its time, and how do they like to get their information?
  3. What can we do for them?
  4. What are we hoping to get them to do?
  5. How much time can we invest?
Then, and only then, can we figure out which social media we should use, and how.  That's a social media strategy.