036 – The way to a rioter’s heart

Posted by  Anecdote International —December 5, 2018
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

When presented with a problem, its easy to assume big interventions will best prompt change. This week’s story suggests that we should think about the small things we can do, before jumping to bigger interventions that other people can implement. 

Riot police

This week, Shawn shares another story. The story demonstrates how small things can make a big difference. It suggests that if we are looking to solve a problem we should think about the small things we can do, before thinking about the big things other people can do. 

When working as a reporter in Iraq during the Iraq War, Charles Duhigg met a US army major. This major was tasked with resolving the riots which were occurring on almost a daily basis in the plaza outside the Great Mosque of Kufa. He resolved the riots peacefully by thinking small and implementing a small change, instead of thinking big and involving the US armed forces.

Shawn found this story in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. 

For your storybank

Tags: conflict, patterns, problem solving, riot, small thing big difference, success

When working as a reporter in Iraq during the Iraq War, Charles Duhigg met a US army major. This major was tasked with resolving the riots which were occurring on almost a daily basis in the plaza outside the Great Mosque of Kufa. 

The major had been reviewing videos of the violence breaking out when he noticed a pattern of behaviour leading up to the riots. Over the course of the day, people would gather in the plaza. Demonstrations would begin, drawing a large crowd by 6:00pm. Food vendors would then roll their trolleys in. 

Not long after the food vendors entered, something would happen to spark violence. Someone would throw a bottle, or there would be some pushing and shoving. 

The major thought, “What can I do to make a difference?” He came up with a strange request for the city mayor. 

He asked the mayor, “Is there any chance we could prevent food vendors from entering the plaza after 5:00pm?” The mayor said they could, and they implemented the change the very next day. 

That evening, they watched the activity in the plaza.

The day proceeded as usual, except at 6:00pm people started looking for food. There weren’t any options within the plaza so people started to dissipate. The demonstrations ended and everyone went home. 

There was no violence. The major had implemented a small change and it had shifted the pattern of behaviour. 

The US army no longer had to be involved in resolving the riots. 


Podcast transcript


Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking – a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.


And I’m Mark Schenk. And Shawn, it’s your turn so what story are you going to kick off with today?


The one I’ve got for us I actually read in Charles Duhigg’s book called The Power of Habits. He was a reporter in Iraq during the 2nd Iraq war and during that time he came across this major who was doing a review of videos of violence that was breaking out in plazas in a town called Kufa, in the great mosque.

The major was starting to notice a pattern of behaviour. What he saw was that as the day progressed people would start to gather in the plaza. Demonstrations would start to happen, some pushing and shoving, and by about 5.00 or 6.00 o’clock at night the crowd had really grown to a big size.

And about that time, because there were so many people there, the food vendors would roll their trolleys in; good business for them. They were doing very well selling their food. And not long after that something would happen to spark off the violence. Someone would throw a bottle, or something would trigger it and off it went.

This major was looking at this pattern and thinking what can I do to make a difference? He went to the mayor of Kufa with a weird request. Is there any chance we can prevent the food vendors from going into the plaza at 5.00 or 6.00 o’clock? And the mayor said, ‘sure, we can do that, no problems at all’.

So, the next time they were watching the activities. The crowd started building up, there’d be the chanting, and they’d be getting into it and then they’d be looking around at 5 or 6 o’clock for the street vendors to grab a bite to eat. Nothing there, so people began to dissipate out of the plaza for their food, the chanting began to diminish and all of a sudden, they’d be looking around— ‘what’s the point of this?’ And they’d all go home and no violence.

With that one small change that army major was able to shift the pattern of behaviour that was causing big problems. What had been happening was that the city would have to call in resources from the U.S military when the violence did break out, so this was a major issue. This is why the major was putting in considerable effort to try and solve this problem.


I imagine that as soon as the crowds started to build up, they’d be monitoring it closely and be prepared to respond. And when the violence broke out their responses were in place and that would probably escalate the violence.


When I read that the first thing that really occurred to me was that it was such a nice example of how a small thing can make such a difference. And one of the things we like doing especially in our culture change work is helping people design interventions and just to be able to share a couple of stories that get people thinking differently about how to tackle a problem—this is a nice example of that.




Where you’re grappling away, you could go through the standard design approach but in this case it’s a pattern-matching exercise. The major sees a pattern, tries an experiment. It’s a pretty small, low-risk experiment; taking the food vendors out—what bad thing might happen out of that? You can’t imagine it creating a big problem. But it’s a nice little intervention to see if you can create a new pattern, which he did.


Indeed, and just relying on a basic human instinct: the need for physiological sustenance—get some tucker in you.


Exactly. What’s your impression of it as a story? What do you think in that story works? What’s your response to that story when you hear it?


Well, if you just look at the story as a story it’s not a particularly notable story. There’s a bit of surprise in it that such a small change (removing the food vendors from the plaza) led to a reduction but it’s not a big rollercoaster of a story.

That’s the story itself but then you take that story and put it into a business situation where you’re asking people to try and figure out a thorny problem (one of those wicked problems), anything to do with culture change or people basically, it’s a good example of how you can shift the thinking from when you’re asking people what to do about these thorny problems (and I see this time and time again) people will think of big things that other people should do.

They go ‘yes, HR should put in a performance management system and the CEO should do this’. It’s a great example of how you can shift the thinking to little things that people can do themselves that can have a potentially big impact simply by shifting the way you think about the problem.

So, instead of a military response you have a food vendor response.


Indeed. Thinking about the visual appeal of the story; I think you could probably do a little bit more in building that up.


Yeah, where is Kufa and what does it look like and what’s the population like? Why is it such a hotbed of unrest?


There’s probably a little bit more context that you could throw in there that might help that story. Duhigg doesn’t provide too much of that in his book –2 paragraphs essentially. I was surprised it doesn’t even have the major’s name. I would have thought that would have been shared but it’s not.

But in terms of getting the job done and getting people thinking differently about how to design changes it does the job.


It does the job. I think it’s a very effective example of just how people can think differently to solve a complex problem. The other upside of that story is it’s very short and easily retell-able.


Definitely. Where would you use it? When would be a suitable time to throw that story in?


Many. Let’s start with where you’ve got your employee engagement survey results and the employees are disengaged. We might think we need to get HR on to this but then you think what are the little things that managers can do? Things like being more approachable so, simple behaviours can have a big impact.

So, you might use that story to get people to think about what little things can we do to increase engagement? One of my favourite things about improving employee engagement is to figure out the things that are pissing people off and stop doing them.


Oh right, that’s a good one.


Things that annoy people; that’s always a good way to approach engagement.


The other thing too is whenever you’re in that environment where you’re trying to design changes by telling that story at the beginning, you’re actually setting a mind set in the design approach. I’d be tempted to have a few different stories; ‘o.k. guys we need to think differently about this. Let me just share these 3 examples’.

You’d share that example, maybe Jerry Sternin and positive deviancy and a few others just to get people going—‘o.k. there are different ways of doing it’. In fact, for that story I’d actually get people to think what are the design principles in that story? And get them down so that people can really see them before they jump into designing some new ways of doing things.


That’s a great idea because when people can figure out the principles for themselves and that’s one of the beauties of simple stories like the Kufa food vendor story is that stories reveal stuff. Rather than telling people what they reveal you simply ask them what do you infer from that story? What are the principles that you can use in figuring out what we are going to do in our situation?


Most definitely. Cool. O.K. let’s give this story a rating. What do you think about this story?


As we discussed, if you just take the story as an artefact without any business context around it, it’s kind of an ordinary story, you might give it 5. But then I think how effective it could be in a situation where you’re asking people to think differently about deciding what you’re going to do, and it goes to a 7.


I would even push it to an 8 for me. It’s a great one to have in your back pocket. It’s one I’ve told a number of times and it’s an easy story to tell and I can see it has a big impact on how people see and think about tackling problems. So, I think it has great utility.




Right guys, I think that’s all we need to say for today’s episode. If you have any comments about the story, especially if you have any intervention stories you’d love to share; jump on the website, put a comment where the episode is and let us know. Please share the love and tell people about the podcast and we’d love to hear more from you as we go along.

But for now, thanks for listening to Anecdotally Speaking and tune in next week for another episode of how to put stories to work.

About  Anecdote International

Anecdote International is a global training and consulting company, specialising in utilising storytelling to bring humanity back to the workforce. Anecdote is now unique in having a global network of over 60 partners in 28 countries, with their learning programs translated into 11 languages, and customers who incorporate these programs into their leadership and sales enablement activities.


  1. Peter Spence says:

    Nice work Shawn and Mark.
    Love the conversational style you use. Terrific commentary on how small things can make a big difference and how to position and use the story.
    Great work Anecdote!
    Best wishes.

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