Dec
18

Change Management Lessons from Eating Snakes and Rats

by  Chip Bell  |  Change Management
Change Management Lessons from Eating Snakes and Rats

A significant part of the Vietnam conflict in the late ‘60s was fought in thick jungle. Most areas of the northern part of what was then South Vietnam, what the military termed I Corps, were thick, mountainous jungle.

U.S. soldiers who were separated from their units and forced to wander the jungle, often died from hunger – with a feast of edible food all around them. They perished rather than eat rats and snakes. Keep that perspective in mind as our change management back story.

After I completed infantry officer training and tour of duty as an instructor at the Army Infantry School, I was given (funny word) orders to deploy to Vietnam to serve as an infantry platoon leader with the elite 82nd Airborne. However, I had influenced the right people and won the opportunity to attend the Army Jungle Survival School in the Republic of Panama as an interim stop on my route to Southeast Asia. A part of the intense survival training included a special lesson aimed at equipping soldiers to effectively deal with the challenge outlined in the first paragraph.

Following a fact-based lecture on the plight of soldiers who needlessly starved in jungles, the head of the Camp Sherman mess hall unveiled a special banquet. Food from the nearby jungle had been specially prepared and was displayed on long serving tables as if it had come straight from the kitchen of a five-star restaurant. Each dish was clearly labeled. The serving procedure was simple – grab a plate, get in line, and help yourself.

Baked rat was served in a special curry sauce. Large black beetles deep-fried in a flavorful batter were served with a spicy mustard dip. Boa constrictor strips were grilled and served with a guava glaze. Monkey brains came sauteed in a butter sauce with shredded coconut and a touch of papaya. Monkey eyeballs came in a savory broth with bamboo shoots, black palm leaves, and palm nuts. And, the dessert table included large ants and worms slow baked and covered with a chocolate sauce with a hint of pineapple. There was much, much more.

The instructors were in the front of the line with obvious enthusiasm. Students who were brave early adopters followed them, filling their plates and heading for a table to show off to their buddies, all with the admiration of the instructors. Queasy diners dreamed of a Big Mac and a cold beer. But, an important change occurred. The iron stomach, try-anything soldiers bragged to their colleagues about their tasty choices and encouraged their timid classmates to “try the baked rat, it tastes fantastic!”

It clearly worked. Soon most soldiers had at least tried most of the items on the large banquet table. Long military experience had shown that, faced with survival, soldiers would be far less likely to be repulsed by the idea of eating gross food if they had at least tried it once. While the food in the wild would never be as scrumptious as the gourmet treatment it received at Camp Sherman, it bridged an important barrier to change.

Let’s dissect the Army exercise to discern leader lessons for broader application in the business world.

Change Management Starts With Compelling Rationale

Participants were given a well-defined purpose for the unique dining exercise. It was about potential survival, not about appeasing some power-hungry sergeant. Change is a door opened only from the inside. People can be forced to comply; but they cannot be driven to commitment. Change is more likely embraced if there is a compelling reason for making the change. Why do people go on a diet, stop smoking, or start exercising? Typically, they have facts that the hard work of change is for a persuasive reason.

Change Management Turns On Perceived Emotional Worth

The WIIFM (what’s in it for me) dimension can never be ignored. Change is embraced with those impacted by that change if they view some return on their emotional investment. Helping out the company (unless you are an owner), getting your budget cut in half, or deferring a bonus, only is acceptable if anchored to something worthwhile to the person making the change. It is not that people are not altruistic; but tough change (e.g. eating rats) needs to be grounded in a benefit to the changee not just the changor.

Change Management Is Amplified By Broad Based Participation

People do not resist change. They resist the prediction or perception of pain or discomfort over which they have no control. The Army Jungle Survival School’s eat the beetle exercise was completely voluntary. No one was forced to eat anything they did not want to eat. Allowing people to opt in or opt out communicated trust and respect. Change management needs to be laced with compassion coupled with a clear and present recognition that people differ in their capacity to change as well as their pace of acceptance.

Change Management Is Bolstered By Peer Influence

Some people have such a fear of rejection that they are reluctant to change even if they know change is best. They do not want to stand out. However, when they observe peers embracing the change, it provides encouragement. Call it the herd mentality or the power of the first follower (with a hat tip to Derek Sivers). People are comforted in knowing they are not a lone pioneer on the forefront of a challenging change. At the Army Jungle Survival School, those students at the front of the serving line were affirmed for their bravery. That recognition sent an important signal to others to join in.

Change Management Is Solidified By Leadership Role Models

The Army Jungle Survival School instructors were at the front of the serving line. They not only set the tone and modeled the change, they were enthusiastic in their embrace of the avant garde menu. Leaders seeking change walk in a floodlight. Effective change management is not just achieved by leader conversation; it must include observation—leader actions that followers see as congruent with the change message.

I was lucky. The geography of the region of Vietnam where I served was much like the southeastern U.S. farmland where I grew up. While there were monsoons and tropical vegetation, there was no jungle. But, the superb Army Jungle School experience stayed with me. And, when I am asked by a senior leader to facilitate a large systems change, I find myself metaphorically thinking, “How can we encourage queasy, skeptical employees to eat snakes and rats?”

How can you encourage someone in your life who is resistant to change?
Photo Credit: Phasin Photo

About The Author

Articles By chip-bell
Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and has served as a consultant to some of the world’s most famous brands. He has authored twenty books including “The 9 1⁄2 Principles of Innovative Service.” His newest book, “Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experience Through Innovative Service,” was released in February 2015.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Chery Gegelman  |  18 Dec 2014  |  Reply

Chip – Your story is fascinating and your lessons are powerful. Thank you!

Mary C. Schaefer  |  18 Dec 2014  |  Reply

Chip, what a story. Firstly, what a hard-hitting reminder of what our armed forces personnel are faced with. Thank you for sharing it.

Secondly — excellent parallels with the dynamics of managing change. This is a great post to share that can get leaders attention when it comes to prepare for managing change. The prospect of eating snakes and rats gets a person’s attention.

My favorite point: “Leaders seeking change walk in a floodlight. Effective change management is not just achieved by leader conversation; it must include observation—leader actions that followers see as congruent with the change message.” SO important.

Thanks again, Chip.

Jane Anderson  |  19 Dec 2014  |  Reply

Your analogies are meaningful and so easy to identify with. Not the combat or eating rats. Yikes! I can’t imagine doing that – not even if they were cooked to mimic 5-star restaurant status. I love change. I’ll be the first one to at least consider whether changing something at least deserves a chance. I love these two quotes best.
Change is a door opened only from the inside. People are comforted in knowing they are not a lone pioneer on the forefront of a challenging change.

Thanks for sharing your story.

MILE Madinah  |  23 Dec 2014  |  Reply

Very moving article Mr. Chip. I believe change process from inception to completion and identify key elements which require additional focus and management. Success rates for successfully managing change continue to be poor.

John Smith  |  26 Dec 2014  |  Reply

Hi, Chip

First, thanks for your service:) I was in uniform during the Vietnam Era, but safely tucked stateside.

Second, thanks for a sometimes stomach-churning, but ultimately very useful reflection on how we learn and change.

I was struck by your observation that “Long military experience had shown that, faced with survival, soldiers would be far less likely to be repulsed by the idea of eating gross food if they had at least tried it once. ” I think this holds true for much in life, as well as in the military. I know from experience that the elements you mention in your post are important in getting people to “try it”, whether this refers to baked rat, jumping from a very high platform, or moving out of our comfort zones into places we have never been.

Maybe our leadership development should include more experiences where people can do something, at least to a degree, to prepare them more fully to do it in real life. Probably why simulations are such popular items in the LD bag these days … even when they do not simulate reality all that well.

Much to consider here – thanks:)

John

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