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To Action: The $23 Billion Pest and Missing Guidebooks

Throughout the early 20th century the boll weevil decimated the American cotton industry. The destructive pest snuck up from Mexico and very quickly jumped from farm to farm, town to town creating an estimated $23 Billion in economic destruction (inflation adjusted). Within 5 years of contact, total cotton production declined by 50 percent.

Livelihoods were destroyed.

So why in the world would a town in Alabama erect a monument in this pest’s honour?

The answer: The power of Forced Adversity.

You see the town of Enterprise in Coffee County, Alabama had primarily grown cotton – as it was a crop that handled difficult conditions and drew large profit margins. Growing cotton was entrenched in the township’s culture. It was likely an identity for them. …That was until the boll weevil. In just one year the town lost almost 70% of its crop yield to the pest.

So one farmer decided to break the long-standing cotton tradition and went looking for something different to grow. Ideally one with similar growing resilience, high profit margins and ultimately something that those boll weevils wouldn’t bother with.

And he found one: Peanuts.

In just one year this farmer’s peanut yield paid off all his previous debts and the rest of the town paid attention. Within a few years, and at the peak of the boll weevil’s decimation across the southern states of the USA – Coffee County had become the largest producer of peanuts in the country and the first region to produce peanut oil.

The boll weevil forced this town out of its longstanding traditions and the pivot ultimately brought them greater wealth and prosperity.

Chatting with a Government leader this week, he shared with me a similar story of forced adversity – however this time it was orchestrated. A group of his staff were stuck in a ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ mentality and he wanted to break that. So he temporarily ‘borrowed’ their process guidebook. Without the guidebook to rely on, this group were forced to come up with answers using the tools and knowledge they had. Modern tools. Modern knowledge.

When the guidebook eventually ‘reappeared’ – it was time for a process overhaul.

What traditions in your organisation need to be decimated? Might be time to consider a controlled dose of forced adversity.

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Brendon Baker

Brendon is a leading expert in strategic framing and inside-out change. He has led and guided over $11 Billion in transformative projects and programs, from transformations to teddy bears. He is the author of the best-seller Valuable Change, and niche top seller Creating High Value PMOs. Brendon now spends his time helping leaders cut through the noise to focus on what matters; working with them to create new realities.

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