The Lucky Fish

25 November 2011


One of the interesting case studies used in Rogers' book The Diffusion of Innovations is the story of introducing clean water into North African villages. The women of the village resisted using clean water from a tap for other than ritual purposes until the 'high status' women in the village started using it for cooking. It illustrates the problem that innovations are not used even when, objectively and empirically, they are better than existing practice. Indeed, the women in Africa used all sorts of creative and implausible explanations as to why they would not change their water use habits. A Canadian PhD student has now come up with another great example of how innovators need to use existing preferences and desires to motivate positive change.

The nice thing about this research (peer-reviewed here and here) is that, rather than promoting the sale of a product that commits people to expensive foreign innovations, its a simple idea: help people suffering from anemia by providing a cheap and robust means of adding a small amount of iron to their diet. No pills, just a small piece of (locally produced) iron added to the cooking pots. Families keep all their existing cooking equipment and their diet remains unchanged, but a small amount of iron leaches into their food during cooking and their health improves.

The innovative bit was making the iron in the shape of a local lucky fish charm - women who refused the use of utilitarian shapes were now happy to use it and have subsequently (along with their families) benefited from a slow improvement in iron levels and health.

There's an important lesson here for anyone interested in stimulating change. The value of your ideas or innovations can be completely lost unless you can identify and align your change with the values and objectives of the people who make the change. Its not a new lesson - Rogers understood it well - but its worth reminding ourselves of it, particularly when you see such a lovely example of it embodied in a fish.