Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard

Book summary by Gretchen Luongo – Instructional Designer, School for Family and MWR
Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010).  Switch – how to change things when change is hard.  Broadway Books, New York, NY

Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard

Switch asks the question “Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in our companies, in our communities, and in our lives?” The authors leverage the analogy of the Elephant (the emotional mind) and the Rider (the rational mind) to describe how speaking to both the emotional and the rational sides when implementing a change can motivate the change to happen – this analogy is credited to the book The Happiness Hypothesis by Dr. Jonathan Haidt.

“Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Roider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.” -Page7

The authors determine that there are three things that need to happen to successfully effect change in and organization:  Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant and Shape the Path. The book examines each of the aspects and provides specific supporting techniques along with plenty of case studies which are both relevant and interesting.

Direct the Rider

  • Find the Bright Spots – look for what IS working and figure out how to replicate the behavior instead of focusing on what is broken.
  • Script the Critical Moves – too many choices can cause decision paralysis which is debilitating when effecting change. When simple, specific rules or guidelines are communicated which enable people to make hard decisions, progress can be made.  An example provided in the book described a study conducted by two researchers from West Virginia University who were trying to figure out how to promote healthier life style. From past research they knew that to simply remind people to ‘Eat healthier!’ was not going to work.  Instead their campaign was ‘Drink 1% milk’. They were able to determine a specific behavior to change and targeted that behavior concisely.
  • Point to the Destination – make it clear what the end result is and will look like. The example in the book describes a first grade teacher, Crystal Jones, attempting to raise reading levels in her classroom.

“…By the end of this school year, you’re going to be third graders. (Not literally, of course but in the sense that they would be at third-grade skill levels.) That goal was tailor-made for the first-grade psyche…..[Jones] knew exactly what the third-grade standards in Georgia required, and she knew where her kids were starting. She genuinely thought she could close the gap.”  -Page74-75

Motivate the Elephant

  • Find the Feeling – Remember that it is emotion that motivates the elephant, so determine which emotion and leverage it as part of the process. If you inspire, excite and engage those whose behavior you are attempting to change you can motivate.
  • Shrink the Change – small visible changes are less daunting than larger harder changes and can motivate people to get started. When faced with large change, people are often overwhelmed and give up before they begin. If you can give them a small win right form the start they will gain confidence and continue to make larger and larger changes.
  • Grow Your People – This section discusses the identity decision-making model, if people identify and relate to what you are asking them to do they are more likely to change. When they feel a s sense of ownership and responsibility the motivation is greater.

Shape the Path

  • Tweak the Environment – people are inclined to attribute behavior to the type of person someone is instead of the situation they are in. This section of the book encourages us to look at situational factors and how they attribute to behavior. What can be changed in the environment to affect the change itself or to make it easier for others to change?
  • Build Habits – for behavior to change habits must often change. Action triggers (when X happens, I will do Y) help people make changes and build habits. For example:

“…think about your employees who will be attending an industry conference. By the time they get back to the office, their e-mail will be so back up that they won’t be in the mood to share their learnings. So give them an action trigger – suggest that during the flight home, whenever the “OK to use electronics” announcement is made, they type up some reflections for everyone on the team. Action triggers simply have to be specific enough and visible enough to interrupt people’s normal stream of consciousness.”

  • Rally the Herd – In studies, groups fail to respond to stimuli (for example. someone needing help or other crisis) that individuals. Individuals typically make their own best judgment then move to action. When it is a group situation, an individual will look to others in the group for cues before deciding to act. This is important to recognize when attempting to affect change – the book uses examples such a dashboards showing team or individual progress to encourage people to a particular behavior.

Learn more about the authors.

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