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?”