switchSwitch: How to change things when change is hard is the third book I’ve read by Chip and Dan Heath. These guys are so helpful in the observations they make about human thinking and behaviour. This book tackles the topic of change and why we so often fail to make the changes we know we need to make. As one who continually fails to make the changes that I know I need to make, I was drawn in from the outset. The Heath brothers describe an obstacle that’s built into our brains—the rational mind competing with the emotional mind. The rational mind wants to look good in swimmers come summer, but the emotional mind likes the comfort of another Krispy Kreme doughnut.

Given that I’m currently attempting to lose 17% of my body weight before Christmas—when I usually fail attempts like this—this news could prove very helpful!

Switch draws on the work of Jonathon Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis in describing the emotional side as an Elephant and the rational side as its Rider. The Rider holds the reins and would seem to be in control, but the reality is that a six-ton elephant will win every time they have a disagreement. Thus, the Krispy Kreme will trump the desire to look good in swimmers if the two get into a fight.

The strength of the Rider is normally in his longer-term thinking, whereas the Elephant seems focused on short-term gains. When change efforts fail, the Elephant is usually to blame. But this doesn’t mean that the Elephant is evil—the elephant can be associated with very positive emotions, and he is usually the one who gets things done. The Rider is often the blockage because he tends to overthink and over analyse things.

Change happens when the Rider and the Elephant cooperate. The Rider makes the plans and sets the direction, and the Elephant provides the energy needed to get there. Knowledge without emotion won’t get you anywhere. Emotions without thinking can take you anywhere. Synergy between the two is needed to complete the changes we desire.

When there is a tug of war between the two, the Rider will quickly tire and give up. Self-control is exhausting and can only sustain change efforts for a short period. This is often because we are attempting to change things that have become comfortable habits; things we do on automatic. Sometimes it seems that people don’t change because they are lazy, but the reality is often that they are exhausted from repeatedly failed attempts.

Sometimes change fails because the Rider doesn’t seem to know where he is headed. The Elephant is going in circles. It’s not resistance by the Elephant—it’s a lack of clarity by the Rider. If we want people to change then we need to provide clear direction.

This story shapes the authors’ three-part framework to guiding change efforts in any situation:

Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.

Motivate the Elephant. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. The Rider can’t get his way by force for very long. So it’s critical that you engage people’s emotional side—get their Elephants on the path and cooperative.

Shape the Path. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. We call the situation (including the surrounding environment) the “Path”. When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant. (p17-18)

Direct the Rider

Find the bright spots
These are the best way to direct the Rider. Show him how to act, where to go, and how to get there by pointing out others who are already doing it well. Ask the question ‘What’s working and how can we do more of it?’ Often this question is ignored in favour of the question ‘What’s broken and how can we fix it?’ Focusing on the negative doesn’t help the Rider to have a solution focus.

Script the critical moves
Too many options can make it difficult to make decisions. It creates disruption, uncertainty and anxiety. Too many options and ambiguity can create decision paralysis. Both make it hard for the Rider to direct the Elephant. If there are many paths and the Rider is unclear about where to direct the Elephant, then the Elephant has a tendency take the most familiar and comfortable path. The most familiar path is invariably the status quo—so nothing ends up changing.

Some leaders focus only on the big picture and stay clear of the details. However, this doesn’t help the change process because the hardest part of change is in the details. Ambiguity leads to inertia and this must be overcome by scripting the most critical moves. Not all the details, just the most important for the change process. We need to explain the new way clearly—not assume it’s obvious.

Point to the destination
The tendency these days is to focus on SMART goals. The Heaths argue that such goals are good for steady-state situations because the assumption is that the goals are worthwhile. However, to persuade people and organisations to change requires people to be convinced of the new goals. This means addressing the emotion as well as the intellect. SMART goals rarely hit people in the guts emotionally. We need to generate a clear picture from the near-term future that will inspire people and show them what is possible.

Motivate the Elephant

Find the feeling
To achieve change we need to speak to the Elephant as well as the Rider. The Heath brothers quote John Kotter and Dan Cohen in The Heart of Change:

…the core of the matter is always about changing the behaviour of people, and behaviour change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to people’s feelings … in highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought. (p105)

Most people think that change happens via the route of analyse >think> change, whereas the reality is that it is normally see>feel>change. Things need to impact the emotions, not simply the thought processes. Lack of change may not be the result of a lack of understanding. Most smokers find it very difficult to give up. They know that smoking causes lung cancer and a list of other problems. More information isn’t the solution. The answer lies in impacting the emotions—motivating the Elephant.

Negative emotions can be powerful change agents, but they tend to have a narrowing effect—whereas positive emotions broaden and build our possibilities. They can stimulate hope, and joy, and creativity which are needed to sustain change.

Shrink the change
One way to stimulate change is to make people feel as though they are closer to the finish line than they thought. One study showed a car wash promotion with loyalty cards. Some people were given a card showing the eight washes earned a free wash. Others were given a car showing that ten washes earned a free wash. This group was given a head start with two washes already checked off. After a month or two, more of the ten-wash cards had earned free washes, illustrating that people found the head start worked as an incentive.

Focusing on small wins also shrinks the change. The small wins must be meaningful and within reach. It’s easier to cope with a long trip if it’s broken down into smaller sections. Instead of seeing the journey as a 3000km trip, you can mark off the destination in 300 km intervals, and celebrate each arrival. This makes it easier to achieve small successes and this means more celebrating. The celebrations of achievement build hope—and hope is Elephant fuel!

Grow your people
There are two basic models for motivating change: the consequences model and the identity model. The consequences model looks at the costs and benefits. It’s a rational, analytical model. The identity model involves us in essentially asking three questions: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? (p153) Change efforts that violate people’s identity are destined for failure.

People will rise to match their identity in creating change. However, they will also fail. It’s important for people to have the expectation of failure. Not failure of the project or mission, but setbacks and disappointments en route. They should be challenged to keep growing through the struggles, so that they will succeed in the end. People should be encouraged to see falling down as learning and growing rather than failing.

The Rider needs direction, but the Elephant needs motivation. Motivation comes from feelings and from finding confidence. The Elephant needs to believe it is able to make the changes. Shrinking the change and growing the people work together to build confidence.

Shape the Path

Tweak the environment
If we want people to change, we can provide clear direction (Rider), increase their motivation (Elephant), or, alternatively, we can make the journey easier (Path).

Create a steep downhill slope and give them a push. Remove some friction from the trail. Scatter around lots of signs to tell them they’re getting close. (p181)

Tweaking the environment is about making it easier for people to choose the right behaviours and harder to choose the wrong behaviours. This is why supermarkets put the milk in the far corner—so you will spend more time in the shop. An example I can apply to my diet strategy is to shrink the size of my plate. This way I will eat less because I simply can’t fit as much on the plate.

Build habits
Our environment can reinforce or dissuade habits. Sometimes if we change the environment it becomes easier to change the habit. It would be unwise for a recovering alcoholic to visit a bar, because it has a strong association with drinking.

One strategy for motivating action and developing habits that motivate is to create action triggers. In a university study, students were given the opportunity to gain extra credit in class by writing a paper on how they spent Christmas Eve. But to get the credit, they had to submit the paper by the day after Christmas! Students were divided into two groups. One group was asked to set action triggers (noting in advance when and where they were going to write the report) and the other wasn’t. One third of the latter group managed to write the paper compared with three quarters of those who set action triggers. Action triggers preload the decision and make it easier to create an ‘instant habit’.

Rally the herd
When things are unfamiliar we tend to watch others to see how they do it. When we are leading an Elephant on an unfamiliar path, the odds are on it following the herd. Herds are powerful. Things become contagious. When one person is obese, the chances are that their friends will also be overweight. People tend to change their perceptions of acceptable body shape by looking at those around them. We consciously and unconsciously copy the behaviour of people close to us.

There are different ways to create a herd. One is to publicise examples of the type of behaviour we are looking for. Another is to get like-minded people together and influence through example the right behaviour. People will start to be influenced by others to go with the flow of right behaviour.

A few thoughts…

As a Christian following Jesus, I am pro-change. God is in the business of change—transforming lives. God is changing his children to become more like Jesus. So it makes me nervous about embracing a book on change that doesn’t mention God or discuss the transforming work of God’s Spirit. I’ve definitely got more work to do in analysing the transferability of a number of these ideas and strategies.

Having said this, Switch has reminded me again that God has made us as complex beings. We are rational and we are emotional. We are influenced by our circumstances and we can seek to shape and change our circumstances. The tendency of my Christian ‘tribe’ is to emphasise the rational and overlook the emotional. Some other tribes tend to put it the other way round. My tribe can tend towards emphasising God’s sovereign control over all things and forget our potential to make changes for the better. While not being a Christian book, Switch has reminded me of some of the complexity of people and our circumstances.

I remember many years ago, discussing with my pastor how I was planning to advertise a Christian conference I was organising. He told me that I needed to sell the sizzle, not just the sausage. I can now see that he was saying that I needed to motivate the Elephant as well as the Rider. If people were going to change their plans to come to the conference, then I needed to engage their emotions as well as their thinking. They needed to be excited about being there, not simply be told why it would be good for them. So we sought to excite people about going and persuade them that this would be the one event of the year that they wouldn’t want to miss. It doesn’t have to be manipulative or deceitful—simply addressing the whole person.

This particular conference occurred during the mid-year break at university. For some people this was the first break of the year and they wanted to go home or head off to the snow. Families would sometimes put pressure on people not to go. The costs were reasonably high. It was important for us to shape the Path for people, to make it easier for them to change plans and come. We would prepare people months ahead to make their mid-year plans, knowing that last minute pressure from families would often keep people away. We would help with payment plans, incentive payments, and sometimes covering people’s costs, knowing that finances would prevent some from attending. I even offered a money-back guarantee if people weren’t persuaded it was time well spent! We would assist people with travel arrangements to help them get there. We’d encourage friends who were already going to make it easier for their mates to come. We made it a lot easier for people to choose the conference.

I’ve observed that much Christian preaching is targeted toward the mind—as it should be—but doesn’t think much about people’s feelings or emotions. Aristotle described good communication as a blend of logos, ethos, and pathos. It’s not just words and arguments, but involves the character and life of the communicator, and their conviction and passion about what they’re communicating.

This book has also helped me to think about how we tend to get people doing new things in our churches and organisations. Sometimes people struggle—they just don’t seem to get it. Perhaps we haven’t made things clear enough. Maybe we’re expecting people to join the dots for themselves. I’ve come to think that we often need to do more to script the critical moves for people—to help them make the transitions and changes.

Switch isn’t the greatest book on change that I’ve ever read. That prize would go to the Bible—hands down. But it is an engaging and practical book for all who are seeking to see change in themselves, in others, and in organisations. There is much to be learned.

2 thoughts on “Switch”

  1. I don’t think you’ve yet done a review of Tim Chester’s “You can change”, so maybe that would be a good counterpoint to this book. I was given a copy, but haven’t started it because 200 pages is a bit of a turn off. So apparently the first thing I need to change is not to be put off by the fact that the book is 200 pages long.

    I like your suggestion of using a smaller plate and hope it will work for you. For me, at home, alone, this would not achieve very much. One of the other standard prescriptions, “never go to the supermarket on an empty stomach or without a shopping list”, is very good advice — but recognise that the key word is “never”.

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