Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard
Daryl L. L. Houston
Posted on January 8, 2018
Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard is a solid read. Kotter’s Leading Change is pretty structured and high level and kind of hard to think about using on a day-to-day basis. By contrast, Switch actually starts at more of a micro level and encourages you to think of small things you might change to lead to a bigger change. I cover most of the book’s main points below, but the book provides a lot more texture and a lot of inspiring case studies, and I highly recommend it as a resource for practical approaches to navigating change; it has already impacted how I approach parts of my work.
The book outlines a basic framework around the metaphor of trying to ride an elephant, and it offers loads of case studies that show both big and small changes, often undertaken by people or groups with no real authority over the people or control over the environments they wish to involve in the change (for example, a group of high school kids who revitalized the economy of their small community).
The authors of this book think about the human response to change as being like a rider on an elephant trying to get to a particular place. The elephant represents the emotional response to the stimulus — it can be very hard to control. The rider represents the analytic or controlling force that keeps the elephant/emotions in check. Different people and situations have different elephant-to-rider ratios. Part of the trick to navigating change successfully is finding a good working relationship between the rider and the elephant. The bigger the change, the harder it is to get the elephant to veer from its current course to make the change.
To make change effectively, you must do three things:
- Direct the rider. That is, provide clarity that lets the rational, logical part of a person decide what needs to change.
- Motivate the elephant. Even if a change makes sense rationally, you sometimes have to make essentially an emotional appeal to get people on board. If we’re invested personally and emotionally in a change, we’re more likely to go along with it.
- Shape the path. That is, set circumstances up so that change is actually feasible. An example here is using smaller plates to help you eat less so that you’re more healthy. This simple change in plate size actually does help people eat smaller portions, which can lead to weight loss. Just doing this small action shapes the path for you to make a change that is otherwise more difficult to make.
Direct the Rider
The authors propose a few ways to direct the rider. First, look for bright spots. That is, what has been successful already that we might build on? In an effort to improve nutrition among children, workers studied the habits of those mothers whose children were more healthy and brought some of their practices to other mothers. Nutrition increased! This wasn’t a huge sweeping change to healthcare but was an observation of what was working for some and the simple transference of that behavior to others.
Next you script the critical moves. This means providing simple rules that reduce decision paralysis, which can really hurt change initiatives. For example, in an effort to turn a railroad’s finances around, a leader identified four rules to govern the company’s expenditures. Anything that would have violated these critical rules was off limits, period. You don’t have to outline every move — just the ones that are highest impact, the critical ones. In another case study, researchers seeking to improve health in a community by reducing saturated fat set a rule to drink 1% milk, as milk was the biggest source of saturated fat in the diet. They could have made rules that had people counting calories and reading labels on all their foods, but the people’s elephants would have lapsed on that quickly. It’s easy (and it proved effective) to simply make the rule “drink 1% milk instead of 2% or whole.”
Finally, you point to the destination. This can mean making a “destination postcard” — something that can be achieved in months or years rather than decades. An example from the book is that in working to improve school performance for first graders, a teacher told them that by the end of the year, they would be third (not second) graders. This gave them a clear destination (perform according to educational standards at the level of third graders) and motivated the elephant (it gave kids something to feel proud to strive for).
Sometimes, the critical moves should include black and white goals — things that very intentionally restrict behaviors and remove ambiguity. These aren’t inspiring on their own, but paired with a destination postcard that motivates the elephant, they can provide great direction.
It’s important to “marry your long-term goal with short-term critical moves.”
Motivate the Elephant
To motivate the elephant, you “find the feeling,” “shrink the change,” and “grow your people.”
If you’re stuck in a burning building and your options are to stay and burn or leap and maybe live, you’ll likely accept the change of leaping from the building. That’s one way to find the feeling. But fear isn’t generally a good motivator to use intentionally for corporate change. If you can find more positive motivators, you should do so, and you should be relentless in doing so.
Shrinking the change seems related to finding the bright spots for the rider. Rather than trying to overhaul something huge, narrow scope and work on something that feels more achievable (then lather, rinse, repeat). This can mean things like (for retail businesses) giving out loyalty cards with a couple of stamps already stamped, so that a customer feels like they’re already part-way along the journey. If your house is a mess and you want it clean, make your task to clean the bathroom rather than to clean the house. Feeling like the change is manageable potentially gives you a sense of accomplishment when you do the smaller task and gives you momentum to work on the next bit of it.
You can shrink change by decreasing the investment (of time, money, whatever) or by setting up smaller achievable milestones and building on the momentum of hitting them.
Growing your people means in part setting stakeholders up to feel a sense of identity with or ownership of the change rather than setting them up merely to feel as if there will be consequences for failure. The more you can underscore this identity and connect goals and change to serving a shared value, the smoother your change efforts may be. The more a change seems disconnected from this goal the change supports, the less smooth it’ll go.
Promoting a growth mindset rather than a fixed one also helps with change, as it helps us embrace failure when it occurs as a thing we can learn from and improve, vs. as a thing that merely feels bad.
If you can grow your people and shrink the change, your elephant will feel like the task at hand is achievable.
Shape the Path
Shaping the path means making it pretty easy to work on the task at hand. The book gives an example in which people were asked to donate cans of food. People who had been classified by peers as jerks were more likely to donate food even than non-jerks if they (the jerks) had simple, clear instructions for doing so that the non-jerks did not have. The path for them was easy, so they did the thing it led them toward.
Sometimes, shaping the path can mean doing little hacks to yourself or to your processes. For example, if you want to spend less of your evening time plugged into work, you might take Slack off your phone (or mute its notifications). Otherwise, you’ll be constantly checking in at work even when you really don’t want to.
Habit-building is a fundamental part of shaping the path, and an effective way to build habits is to use action triggers, which means setting up rules that “when X happens, I will do Y.” Preloading this sort of behavior basically into the environment reduces decision fatigue and helps you build habits; you need only follow the simple rules you set up. In thinking about habits as a way to implement change, it’s important both that habits advance progress toward the change and that they be pretty easy to embrace.
Checklists are a great tool for shaping the path.
Rallying the Herd
Behaviors are contagious, and so once we’ve begun to change things, we also want to begin to build them into the norms of the group that’s making the change. So, when a group has embraced desired behaviors, we should publicize it. It’s a little harder when people don’t embrace the desired behaviors, as it can lead to things like shaming folks for not being on board, so there’s a delicate balance to strike here.
The book also talks about just getting desired change into the consciousness. For example, we have the notion of designated drivers because of a careful campaign on the part of its champion to get it mentioned in many TV shows starting in the 1980s.
Some of the case studies in this section amount to promoting propaganda, which feels a little weird.