The Four Chickens Problem

The most effective way to prevent death by malaria is by using long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets. Yet organizations that distribute these nets have discovered that the folks who receive the nets sometimes choose to trade them for four chickens rather than use the nets. Why?

  • The four chickens solve an immediate, obvious and painful problem — hunger.
  • The net addresses a future, less obvious problem.
  • They know that a chicken and its eggs will give relief.
  • They don’t always realize that mosquitoes cause malaria and, therefore, don’t understand the value of the solution represented by the net.

In Enterprise 2.0 implementations, if we aren’t very careful about what we’re offering and to whom, we can end up distributing nets to people who don’t understand their need for them.  As a result, they ignore our solution in favor of doing nothing or doing something else that provides immediate relief to the problem they (rather than you) have identified.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that an E2.0 implementation is as important as saving lives.  However, I do think knowledge management teams can learn from the experience of  organizations fighting malaria because the fundamentals of human behavior and change management they face and we face are the same.  In order to achieve changed behavior (or adoption of a new tool) we must:

  • Educate people as to the actual cause of the problem.
  • Educate people as to the theoretical benefits of the proposed solution.
  • Prove the solution in such an obvious way so that you make the theoretical real.
  • Include monitoring and evaluation to keep proving your case as you implement the solution in their community.

Don’t just throw your nets (or E2.0 solution) at the nearest group of people.   You can’t solve problems they don’t realize exist.  If they are unaware of the problem, you’ll have to embark on the longer process of educating them so that they truly understand the issue they are facing and are ready to do something productive to alleviate it.  Otherwise, all you’re doing is providing a chicken dinner.

For more information on the enormous benefits of malaria nets, see the NetsforLife website.  (Disclosure:  This is an organization my family supports.)

[Photo Credit:  Broterham]

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15 thoughts on “The Four Chickens Problem

  • July 23, 2009 at 2:46 pm
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    Even better than education people is to lead them through a discussion of the core problems and mechanisms for their solution. It is so much more effective to have them come up with the solution, even if it is the same one you would have presented 30 minutes ago. Then you have a much better chance of challenging the solution and presenting its benefits / drawbacks, as you will have their general agreement that it is the right thing to do.

  • July 26, 2009 at 11:16 pm
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    Fair point, Jack. Although, I would consider that type of discussion “highly educational”!

    – Mary

  • July 28, 2009 at 1:10 am
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    Good one! Finally got around to catching up with some pending tweets and posts and noticed that this post has been RTed multiple times. Now I know why! 🙂 I especially liked “Don’t just throw your nets (or E2.0 solution) at the nearest group of people”. I am also able to appreciate Jack's comment on leading the people to the solution rather than telling them what to do!

  • July 28, 2009 at 7:11 am
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    Thanks so much, Nimmy. Jack's recommendation that we lead people to adopt
    solutions rather than just tell them about the solutions is wise. The catch
    is that it takes real skill and insight to lead people and no skill at all
    to hound them. There's definitely more work to be done in this area.

    – Mary

  • July 28, 2009 at 11:45 am
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    Thank-you for this-a great overview of some of the challeneges I'm currently facing with an online community. Feeling like I've been throwing a lot of nets!

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  • July 31, 2009 at 5:02 am
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    True, we shouldn't throw out our nets to people. Your step-by-step approach is very helpful. I also agree with Jack, that discussions about underlying mechanisms can help (for some) too. Don't talk about wiki's. But talk about openness, efficiency, transparency, helping each other, etc. Then provide a solution.
    However, sometimes is does help to throw out nets. I find that with social media you have to dip in to experience it. Can you explain what the use of Twitter is, before you've used it. I couldn't. And by trying it I understood (or try to).
    To give you an example. I've been talking to the communications department about social media for a long time (- the underlying mechanisms, theory, etc). And some of them caught on quickly. But nobody actually went out and tried using the tools. So, I looked for some cases, set up the tools for them and helped them start using them. Now, they're really getting it.

  • July 31, 2009 at 8:30 am
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    Good luck, Jason! Almost all of us start with nets — and then the smart
    ones find another, more effective approach. Do keep us posted on how things
    go.

    – Mary

  • July 31, 2009 at 8:33 am
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    Fair point, Samuel. Perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle. It
    sounds like you did try to “prepare the ground” with your communications
    department. (A form of education?) Now you're giving them some first-hand
    empirical data to consider. Makes sense to me.

    – Mary

  • July 31, 2009 at 9:02 am
    Permalink

    True, we shouldn't throw out our nets to people. Your step-by-step approach is very helpful. I also agree with Jack, that discussions about underlying mechanisms can help (for some) too. Don't talk about wiki's. But talk about openness, efficiency, transparency, helping each other, etc. Then provide a solution.
    However, sometimes is does help to throw out nets. I find that with social media you have to dip in to experience it. Can you explain what the use of Twitter is, before you've used it. I couldn't. And by trying it I understood (or try to).
    To give you an example. I've been talking to the communications department about social media for a long time (- the underlying mechanisms, theory, etc). And some of them caught on quickly. But nobody actually went out and tried using the tools. So, I looked for some cases, set up the tools for them and helped them start using them. Now, they're really getting it.

  • July 31, 2009 at 12:30 pm
    Permalink

    Good luck, Jason! Almost all of us start with nets — and then the smart
    ones find another, more effective approach. Do keep us posted on how things
    go.

    – Mary

  • July 31, 2009 at 12:33 pm
    Permalink

    Fair point, Samuel. Perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle. It
    sounds like you did try to “prepare the ground” with your communications
    department. (A form of education?) Now you're giving them some first-hand
    empirical data to consider. Makes sense to me.

    – Mary

  • May 18, 2011 at 3:05 pm
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    I’ve often found that by engaging some of the “thought leaders” in the group, getting them on board and highlighting their successes and (short term) gains, then the slow adaptors join in.  There will always be some who will take the chicken dinner, but hopefully over time, those are rooted out of the organization.  Ultimately, the solution has to make their lives easier or better in immediate and comprehensible ways, or else no one will get on board.

  • May 23, 2011 at 12:13 pm
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    Bob –

    You’re right that the solution has to add value. But even in the face of obvious improvements, the human tendency to avoid change can diminish adoption rates. This suggests that in addition to high level support from thought leaders, there needs to be ongoing education to help slow adopters understand the value of the change and how to participant.

    – Mary

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