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A Lesson in Change – Saving the St. Lucia Parrot

By Jeri T Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International   11/19/2011

Takeaways: Changing people’s actions requires changing how they identify with the change. This can be done using the identity or the consequences model.

St. Lucia ParrotThe St. Lucia parrot has a vivid turquoise blue face, lime green wings and a  beautiful red shield on its breast. It exists only on St. Lucia, where the people frequently ate it or used it as a pet. By 1977, there were only 100 in existence.

In their book, Switch, Chip and Dan Heath give the example of Paul Butler who succeeded in bringing the St. Lucia Parrot from the brink of extinction to nearly 700 parrots. In the process he changed St. Lucians’ attitudes about the parrot from one of disinterest to one of national pride and identity. On the heels of that success, he moved from St. Lucia to St. Vincent to replicate the process, saving the St. Vincent parrot from near extinction as well.

How did he do this?

According to the authors, one way to motivate people to “switch” is to shrink the change, making people feel “big” in comparison to the issue at hand. But in Butler’s case, he grew the people. The challenge was huge. He focused on making the people proud of their parrot, a bird that exists only on the island nation of St. Lucia.

Research by James March, a political science professor at Stanford University, confirms that when people make choices, they do so based on one of two models of decision making: the consequences model or the identity model.

The consequences model weighs the cost vs. benefits of choosing a particular option and selecting the one that creates the most satisfaction.

The identity model, on the other hand, is based on answering three questions: Who am I?  What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? There is no consideration of costs or benefits. Instead the focus is on changing a person’s identity or what that person identifies with.

In the case of the St. Lucia parrot, the change was from disinterest in the bird’s plight to one of pride in their identity symbolized by the parrot. It didn’t happen overnight – in fact it took several years.

This example is useful as it relates to changing an organization’s culture. To change the culture, you need to change people’s attitudes and behavior. You need to capture their hearts and change how they identify with the organization. To do so, you need to use the identity model of change – to make the change a matter of identity rather than consequence. 

This means answering the question: What’s In It For Me? Every person in the organization evaluates new processes and procedures based on the answer to this question. By showing the staff in the organization how the new process or procedure will benefit as a member of the organization, you change how they identify with the organization and its operations. The consequences model might also apply depending on the situation.

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