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Published: May 24, 2011
 / Summer 2011 / Issue 63


Eat Your Peas: A Recipe for Culture Change

For the kids who participated (and perhaps for some of their parents and the school staff), peas became a “proof point”: a bit of evidence, drawn from direct experience, of the possibility and value of change. Oliver had demonstrated that children could eat healthy food enthusiastically, that they could accept a change agent as a leader, that they could support one another without ridicule as pea-eating peers, and that all of this might actually be good for them.

Similarly, when you are a leader involved in change, success requires finding your own proof points in a few areas aligned with your agenda. Choose carefully the behaviors you target; they should match your organization’s strategic aspirations and convince specific subgroups and individuals in areas where change is most needed. Oliver’s strategic aspiration was better health; thus, he focused on improving diets. A company looking for cost efficiency might focus on eliminating unnecessary meetings and oversight reviews. Pick the people whose participation is most keenly needed (and who might be expected to resist), show that they can adopt new behaviors, draw a link between these new behaviors and higher performance, and develop the metrics you need to track the changes in results.

Identify Key Influencers

The more time Jamie Oliver spent in Huntington, the more success he enjoyed. Essential to this turnaround was his cultivation of allies within the community. For example, he sought out the most influential teachers — adults who already had the trust of the schoolchildren. Once they saw better health was possible, it became a genuine motivator. Gradually, they warmed to the idea of encouraging and even prodding the kids to make smarter choices during their lunch hour. Oliver’s persistent but respectful approach eventually earned the confidence of Alice Gue; this brought the entire kitchen (and many others in the school) over to his side. He even won over Rod Willis, the belligerent disc jockey, by betting him that in a single week Oliver could attract 1,000 townspeople to his storefront, Jamie’s Kitchen, to learn to cook healthfully. The DJ ended up broadcasting his show from the storefront on the last day of the bet. This episode marked a moment when many townspeople internalized the value of change; it was no longer simply “good for Jamie,” but also good for their community.

Then, as Oliver moved from the elementary school environment to Huntington High School, he changed his approach (and, not coincidentally, his demeanor, donning a leather jacket and toning down his children’s-talk-show-host speaking style). He explicitly recruited “ambassadors of change” — a group of students who met with him and signed on to promote his ideas.

By this point, Oliver had encountered three types of influencers, all of whom are important to any organizational culture change:

1. Culture carriers: visible figures, like Willis and Gue, who maintain the fabric of the community’s common beliefs and values. Culture carriers are not necessarily limited to people with hierarchical authority; they can include people who are well networked or popular, or who maintain an internal newsletter or blog. In any organizational change effort, it is important to identify who these visible figures are, and what they can do to enable or influence change. How can you enlist them as sources of positive energy, to spread insights virally across the organization?

2. Authority figures: those who are officially responsible for articulating the desired goals and the specific behaviors that will be needed to reach them. Often, different people have authority over different parts of the relevant workflow or social system. In Huntington, authority figures included the school principal, a local pastor, the West Virginia state inspector for school food, a businessman who donated US$150,000 to the nutrition effort, and then West Virginia governor Joe Manchin (now a U.S. senator). A sufficient number of these leaders must be seen as invested in the change they are promoting.

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