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Cape Breton Revisited: Try Thinking Smaller

About this time last year, I was putting together the Jan/Feb 2010 cover story about the Cape Breton, N.S. Chapter called “Thinking Big.” They grew from 12 men to 40 in less than a year, and I wanted the barbershop world to understand how, seeing as I’m always on the lookout for the next big thing that could help chapters or the Society at large.

In hindsight, maybe I was thinking too big.

No, I’m not apologizing for the story – I wouldn’t retract a word. I might write it differently today, however, based on what I've learned from several books over the past few months. I’m starting to understand that big changes are most often traced to seemingly small things. In hindsight, that principle applies to Cape Breton in spades.

Smallness of ambition, smallness of hope – those are dangerous. But there’s also a danger in assuming that your chapter (or this Society) can only get big results from big, painful upheavals. That assumption could delay action because problems appear bigger than they are, or worse, distract our collective focus from the little changes that actually could make a big difference.

Switch: How to change things when change is hard

That’s the title of a fantastic book by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, best-selling business authors. They distill down all the scientific research about change and turn every common assumption on its ear ... such as why most big initiatives rarely create lasting change. I won’t get in to all the details here, but most group successes involve meaningful tweaks to the status quo that are small and painless enough that the masses can understand them and do them. The key is that these small victories change the status quo in meaningful ways.

One example: A group that wanted to tackle heart disease in their area. They couldn't afford a big campaign to help people understand dietary rules and to modify their eating and exercise habits. Such a campaign probably wouldn't have changed much, anyway. Instead, they discovered that if most locals switched from drinking whole milk  to 1%, their saturated fat intake would immediately fall to within acceptable levels. So the group worked with local grocers and dairies on a campaign to promote 1% milk purchases. Within months, 40% of prior whole milk drinkers were buying 1% as a matter of habit – helping their hearts without even knowing they had been nudged toward healthier behaviors.

"Understanding" is overrated: Skip to the solution

Chip and Dan discuss “solutions-focused therapy,” in which therapists skip past the "why" of significant problems and instead guide patients to quick-but-effective solutions. They don’t spend a moment digging around your childhood or uncovering hidden motives for what you do. Understanding a problem doesn’t guarantee you’ll solve it. Instead they do this:

Early in the first session, after hearing the patient explain his or her problem, the therapist posts the Miracle Question: “Can I ask you a sort of strange question? Suppose that you go to bed tonight and sleep well. Sometime, in the middle of the night, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens and all the troubles that brought you here are resolved. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first small sign you’d see that would make you think, ‘well, something must have happened—the problem is gone!’ Here’s how one couple in marital therapy answered the Miracle Question posed by their therapist, Brian Cade of Sydney, Australia. WIFE: I’d be happy, feeling at ease at last. I’d be more pleasant to Bob, not jumping down his throat all the time. CADE: What will you do instead? WIFE: Well, there would be more understanding between us. We’d listen to what each other was saying. HUSBAND: Yes, at the moment, we don’t really listen to each other. We just can’t wait to get our own point in. CADE: How could you tell that the other was really listening? WIFE: In the face, I think. We’d perhaps make more eye contact. (Pauses, then laughs.) We’d nod in the right places. ... Once they’ve helped patients identify specific and vivid signs of progress, they pivot to a second question, which is perhaps even more important. It’s the Exception Question: “When was the last time you saw a little bit of the miracle, even just for a short time?” [For example,] “When was the last time you felt like your husband was truly listening to you?” It’s an ingenious tactic. What the therapist is trying to demonstrate, in a subtle way, is that the client is capable of solving her own problem. As a matter of fact, the client is offering up proof that she’s already solved it, at least in some circumstances.

--Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Cape Breton revisited

Cape Breton essentially did this without realizing it. The reason they couldn't agree on what had changed things around was because the key changes were too small, too subtle to notice. Only after the chapter had tripled in size did director Hal Higgins identify their core problem: Nobody had believed their chapter had something other men wanted, so they behaved like a chapter that didn't have much to offer. The moment Hal realized that a more successful attitude had taken hold was when he saw chapter members showing up early to set up the risers, and they set up far more chairs than normal, presumably for an expected influx of guests.

Ask the Miracle Question

Turn these two questions to your chapter, your district and/or the Barbershop Harmony Society. Forget about analyzing our overarching problems and challenges. State the problem (e.g. "Not enough men are joining Society chapters and too many men are leaving.") Then answer these two questions:

1. Suppose you woke up and all your chapter’s (or district’s, or the Society’s) problems had been miraculously solved. You walk into a weekly chapter meeting. What are the first small signs that would tell you the problem is gone?

(Answering, "There would be two dozen more men on the risers" would be about as useless as if the above woman had said, "My husband would have a completely different personality and look like Brad Pitt ..." Maybe we can rephrase question 1 as, "What's the first small sign that this is a chapter a lot of men would want to join and that nobody would want to leave?")

2. When is the last time you saw a little bit of that miracle, even just for a short time?

I’m not asking this rhetorically, I’m saying answer these two questions, right here, in the comments area.

So what are your answers? Provide them here and then ask yourself a third question:

Is there anything preventing your chapter/district/the Society from focusing on that one small thing--one where you've already seen some success--and focus on repeating your small past successes with that thing every week?

Looking forward to your responses!

Lorin May


Editor, The Harmonizer

UPDATE: After reading Montana Jack's comment below and after re-reading what I wrote yesterday, I see the need to clarify that the audience I had in mind for this post was chapter members and chapters themselves. The message was, "Don't wait around for big changes from above or within. See what you can do now and DO IT NOW."

As noted in the first comment below, the Membership Growth Task Force and it's mini task forces are doing critical work, and I support their efforts 100%. Like Montana Jack says, a lot of what they're doing is helping identify the little tweaks we could make at every level that can and do yield big results. With that caveat, I do think it's important to share insights on how successful changes tend to roll out. Big changes are often called for and fruitful (See the articles on the Hilltop, MN and Reno, NV chapters). But sometimes, the most necessary changes might be those that are most obvious and most intuitive to us, and it's a mistake to set those aside because they aren't big enough.

The research I've read from many sources suggests that organizational change is most often successful when the change is clear enough that everyone can understand what is expected of them personally, and powerful enough to stick in your head and heart -- and small enough to enjoy the fruits of success soon enough that the change becomes a habit that begets other good habits.