One of the most fascinating examples of a large-scale transformation programme is the ‘great leap forward’ introduced by Mao Zedong in communist China in the late 1950s.
Mao was frustrated at the slow pace of China’s development and was determined to accelerate it. One of his key priorities was to increase grain production. To help with this, he introduced a campaign urging everyone in China to kill sparrows.
Sparrows were thought to consume 2kg of grain a year each, so Mao reasoned that every sparrow less would mean 2kg more grain that he could export to earn valuable foreign currency.
Nests were destroyed, eggs were smashed, chicks were killed. Millions of volunteers formed into groups, banging pots and pans under sparrows’ nests so they couldn’t rest and would eventually drop dead from exhaustion.
The campaign was remarkably effective. Within a few months, sparrows had all but disappeared from the Chinese countryside.
The problem was that, as well as eating grain, the sparrows had also been eating all the locusts and other insects that would otherwise have been attacking the crops.
As the sparrow population dwindled, the insect population surged, wreaking havoc in the grain fields: instead of a surplus, China found itself struggling with a shortage.
And this is where the story gets really dark.
Because it was such a priority to increase grain production, local party officials were under pressure to deliver ever-higher quotas. The rewards for reporting the biggest increases were spectacular – including the chance to meet Mao himself – while the penalties for failure were brutal.
As a result, officials competed with each other to report production figures that were up to ten times higher than reality. Delighted by the apparent success of his policies, Mao struck a series of deals to export grain to other countries.
In order to meet these export commitments, the officials were now required to deliver the ‘surplus’ they had reported. Grain stores all over the country were ransacked, leaving the people who had picked it to starve to death. Only when the stench of rotting corpses became too great to hide did the truth begin to emerge.
Some 30 million people are now known to have died in the Great Chinese Famine. Mao remained in power, but was edged aside from economic affairs. The reforms of the ‘great leap forward’ were quietly shut down. And 250,000 sparrows were imported from the Soviet Union to begin rebalancing China’s ecology.
What conclusion should we draw from this? That ambitious transformation projects are doomed to fail? Not necessarily – although KPMG estimates that 70% of major transformational change projects don’t work.
For me, there are two big lessons.
First: simple solutions to complex problems are always attractive, but there’s usually a reason why no-one’s tried them before. So, before you kill all the sparrows, spend a bit of time thinking about what will happen next.
Second: be honest about failure. Most change doesn’t work first time, however much you may want it to. If you incentivise people to pretend it’s working when it isn’t, you won’t be able to fix it until it’s too late.