In the mid 1750’s, Frederick the Great sought to encourage the cultivation of potatoes in Prussia. He’d recognized the potential of potatoes in helping feed his nation. He even went so far as to coin the phrase “Potatoes instead of Truffles.” Like many transformation projects, the king faced fierce resistance to his plan. The peasants were deeply suspicious of the potato. The town of Kolberg officially replied to the order: “The things have neither smell nor taste, no even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?”
The king came up with a master strategy. He planted fields of potatoes around Berlin and ordered the army to guard the fields against theft. Or so he wanted his subjects to believe. He instructed the army to not take too much care and to look away or pretend to be sleeping. As you might imagine, the peasants became curious about the fields with “fruits” so precious they had to be under guard. Whenever they tried to steal the potatoes, the guards pretended to not see, and the stigma of the potato was slowly lessened. Eventually potatoes were adopted and cultivated by the population.
I first came across this parable listening to Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy. It’s a lesson illustrating our human tendency to resist change, and highlights the power of reframing.