Little things mean a lot. The “keystone species” theory proves it.

Two baby owls on a branchA keystone species is one whose presence is crucial to a particular ecosystem and whose destruction can damage it irreparably. Keystone species are seldom the ones we think of. Lions, tigers and elephants are not on the list. Keystoners are more likely to be the spotted owl, the brine shrimp or the humble lichen. The creatures you don’t notice until they’re gone.

The lichen, a colonizing organism which can revitalize soil devastated by volcanic ash, fix its own nitrogen and disintegrate rocks, may seem dispensable – it’s only a fungus, after all. But without it, the ecosystem of the Arctic region would suffer cataclysmically and the entire planet would be affected.

Keystone Species. Keystone Habits. The concept isn’t that different. I just read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg and I’m now thinking about the Foundation and what this might mean for the way we work.

In his book, Duhigg profiles Paul O’Neill, the visionary CEO of Alcoa, who took on his new role as boss of a then flailing company with a total commitment to safety. Say what? What did safety have to do with plunging stocks and rising costs? How was concern with safety going to increase profits?

It turned out that O’Neill was on to something. By focusing on developing the habit of safety, he was convinced he would help workers start a positive chain reaction of other good habits. Because safety, he believed, was a keystone habit. He was right.

Alcoa workers deal with molten metal and machines that could rip a man’s arm off. Many had seen colleagues suffer fatal injuries on the job. They understood the importance of safety measures; they were the first to benefit from them and had the most to lose if they weren’t in place.
But it was the way O’Neill encouraged them to think about safety that created the cascade of change at Alcoa which resulted not only in a near-perfect safety record across the country but also increased profits so dramatically that when he retired, Alcoa’s worth had quintupled.

Coincidentally, while I was reading The Power of Habit, I was also looking critically at attendance data from our different centres for children with special needs. The numbers were shocking. Only one centre had a respectable average attendance rate of 87%. The others ranged from 60 to 72%.

This is it, I thought. Attendance is our Keystone Habit.

We began with more analysis. Why the poor numbers? The staff, who had been thinking about it without realizing they were thinking about it, had a long list ready within minutes: Lack of transport; ill health, bad weather, lack of family commitment to the program.

Staff sitting around a table full of papers, active discussion

Then we analysed more minutely: Were individual children chronically absent, bringing down the overall average? Were certain sessions worse than others? Certain times of year?

We established protocols to deal with an absence (phoning parents within half an hour of a child not arriving; delivering a scripted message conveying equal parts concern and disappointment; consequences for repeated non-shows) and we set up a reporting structure whereby each centre calls in its stats to the main office at the end of each day to be shared across the Foundation.

Staff sitting on floor, laptops open, papers strewn around

But the really transformative stuff is just beginning.

If health problems are keeping kids away, what are we doing about that? Children with disability are statistically more likely to get sick, but their illnesses often go unnoticed in the early stages because they are attributed to the disability rather than an infection or a bug. They are less likely to get routine health and dental exams so little things get missed until they become big things.


That means we need to talk more to parents about general health and provide more routine medical care to those who can’t afford it.

Transport, especially in the torrential monsoon season, is a major factor in absenteeism. Our poor families travel on bicycles but that’s not an option when your kid can’t balance on the crossbar (no baby seats here) and it’s pouring rain. So what are we doing about that?

We’ve submitted a proposal to the ONGC asking them to buy us two new buses so our kids can get to school easily and safely every day.

Side view of Karuna Vihar Bus, child looking out of the rear window

Parents aren’t committed. This is the biggest one of all, and it has occasioned the deepest introspection and the most radical changes. Indian parents are passionate about education for their children and they will do anything to see that they get it. If our parents don’t see the point of what we are doing with their kids, if they don’t feel every day is vital and missing a day matters, we’re doing something wrong.

In trying to understand this piece of the puzzle, our team has realised we’ve maybe been coasting a bit – relying on the same old bag of tricks, not communicating enough with parents about little ways their kids are improving, not creating a sense of excitement in the children so that they don’t want to miss a day, taking too casual an attitude to interruptions in their classes . . . all effectively sending a message to families that we don’t really see what’s happening as terribly important either.

Using a Keystone Habit to organize around is not only effective, it’s fun. You see things differently – connections you’d never noticed before suddenly emerge. And it’s all cool. No one is blaming anyone, no one is pointing fingers. We’re just looking at data and playing with the different parts of the puzzle: if that piece doesn’t fit, we’ll put it here. If that doesn’t work, we’ll try this.

Like scientists in a lab, we keep experimenting: what about a tweak over there? And could we turn this upside down? Sideways? And because we can measure it, we know where we stand at the end of each day.

There’s a larger lesson here somewhere – maybe even a spiritual one. And I’ll get around to thinking it through at some point. But right now, I’m really more interested in getting those kids to school every day.

Kids with special needs in a fun-looking classroom


Showing 2 comments
  • Meghna

    Spot on!
    I also think it is really important to ask children themselves (whenever possible) to understand what motivates them or what doesn’t?
    How is their experience and how can we make it better?

    • Jo

      Thanks so much, Meghna!!!

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