Switch: How to change things when change is hard

Switch: How to change things when change is hard By Chip and Dan Heath

Reviewed and summarized by Duncan Brett

Chip and Dan Heath have written a very readable book on how to make change happen. It’s packed with anecdotes and has simplified a complex topic into something even the layman can understand and relate to. A psychologist or change management practitioner may find it a little basic, but it is still well packaged and for the rest of us it makes an excellent primer.

The essence of the book is that even though change can be hard, it is not impossible. To make it happen you need to persuade both the rational and emotional parts of our mind, while taking note of the environment around you and tweaking it where possible. You cannot successfully implement change without addressing all three aspects.

The authors borrow the analogy of a rider guiding an elephant down a path from Jonathon Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis to illustrate their thinking. The rider represents our ordered rational mind, prone to analysis and thinking it’s in charge. The elephant is our emotional self, moving on instinct, ultimately much bigger and more powerful, and not going anywhere it really doesn’t want to. The path is the environment around us that we need to deal with to make the change.

The book lays out 9 moves to help make change happen. They all make sense, and there are lots of examples showing us how it works and why change is hard.

So what is change anyway? According to the Heath brothers it ultimately boils down to getting people to behave in a new way. Getting your emotional state to align itself to your rational mind in as favourable as possible an environment is no mean feat and we are taken through each aspect in detail.

The rider is our rational mind and is wired to analyse things. It is very good at problem solving and focusing on issues. It does have a flaw in that it tends to over analyse, leading to analysis paralysis. This point has been well illustrated by behavioural economists who have shown that the more choice we have the less likely we are to buy something.

Our rational mind likes clear parameters and a visible end goal. The unpredictable and often murky waters of change do not sit well with the rider.

To address this we need to give the rider clear direction by:

  • Finding the bright spots to focus on.
  • Scripting the critical moves that we want to happen next.
  • Pointing the rider to the destination.

Almost by definition problem solving leads us to focus on what’s not working. When there are lots of problems, it is easy to get overwhelmed. The situation can seem hopeless. To counter this we should focus on what is working. The bright spots as it were.

It also doesn’t help to have a grand plan for change and no way to get there. By scripting the critical moves you need to translate ambiguous goals (like eating healthily) into concrete behaviours (like switching to low fat milk). The critical moves are all about the next step, not the big picture. Successful change often happens as a result of a series of small steps, rather than a big leap.

The authors suggest creating a “destination postcard” to show where the change is headed. We should try make this vivid and attractive, make us want to go there. Plus our analytical rider will tend to start looking how to get there, once we’ve pointed him in the right direction.

Resistance to change is often more about lack of clarity than anything else, and clarity dissolves resistance. Uncertainty causes anxiety and that makes the status quo seem attractive.

The second player in this, our emotions or feelings, is represented by the elephant. While we like to think our rational mind is in charge, our emotions often drive things. In the analogy, if the elephant won’t move, the rider isn’t going anywhere. You have to make people want to change. To do this you have to push the right emotional buttons and make the change seem achievable.

To do this the book suggests 3 steps:

  • Find the feeling
  • Shrink the change
  • Grow the people

Trying to fight inertia and indifference solely with analytical arguments is a useless endeavor, akin to throwing a fire extinguisher to a drowning man.

You need to tap into an emotion that makes the change desirable. Look at Jon Stenger who discovered that his company purchased 424 different types of gloves to use in their factories. Despite knowing about it and detailing it in reports, he couldn’t get people to do anything about it, so he gathered a specimen of each glove and tagged the price, and dumped all 424 on the boardroom table. That brought home the craziness of their procurement policy home so vividly, that it became obvious they had to change. Finding the right feeling is tricky, more art than science.

Shrinking the change involves making change seem less of a big deal, and easier to achieve. So instead of raising the bar, one would be better off to lower it when change is required. Quick wins fire people up and motivate them. We can see they are attainable and start to get it into our heads that we can achieve. The sense of progress is critical. It’s very effective to say to people; look you are already part of the way there.

The flip side of shrinking change is to grow the people, mostly by building confidence and making them less scared of failure. Psychologist Carol Dweck discovered we have one of two mindsets, fixed and growth. Those with a fixed mindset believe we can’t change our basic self, while those with a growth mindset believe we can. She believes the growth mindset, which praises effort over skill is essential to reach our full potential. It allows one to treat failure as learning, which helps stop us from quitting. Like the American headmistress who turned around a dysfunctional school, with a high dropout rate, by rebranding a failing grade as “not yet”.

We do not live in a vacuum, and to change we have to take cognizance of the environment around us. This is the path we have to shape.

To effect change here, the Heath brothers identify 3 steps:

  • Tweak the environment
  • Build habits
  • Rally the herd

While we may not have full control of our environment, there are always ways to tweak it, essentially make the desirable behaviour a tiny bit easier, and the bad habit that bit harder.

The problem is often the situation, not the people, yet we are prone to attributing behaviour incorrectly to the person. Nothing illustrates this more than a bureaucracy, which can become like convoluted spaghetti, making people ineffectual even if they want to help. One of the best examples came from a hospital. Nurses are dedicated and motivated people, but still gave the wrong medication on occasion, sometimes with grave consequences. There were no rider or motivation issues here, but it still happened. A new director at a hospital noted that nurses were often interrupted by (much more senior) doctors while they were administering medication. Making everyone aware that the interruptions were a problem, and making the nurses wear a medication vest when administering (telegraphing a do not disturb me sign to others) caused a dramatic drop in mistakes.

The authors also note that self-control is like a muscle. It works well to start with, but eventually we get exhausted and that’s when the problems start. Think of dieting, we know we want to lose weight, but eventually we break down and the diet ends. A simple trick like dishing up smaller portions on smaller plates has been shown to be an effective tweak.

The second step to shaping the path is to build the right habits. This topic is the subject of many books in its own right. Habits are relevant to change, because the behaviours need to become a habit for the change to stick. We are supersensitive to our environment and habits act as a form of a behavioural autopilot.

Action triggers are a good tool to build habits. They remind us to do things we want to do. They need to be specific enough and visible enough to break into our chain of consciousness. Think setting out exact times when you plan to go to gym in advance if you plan to get fit, and not just a vague commitment to go more often.

The authors advocate the use of checklists as an effective way to educate people on the best way to do something. It’s clear and insures against overconfidence.

Our final step is to rally the herd. It has been comprehensively proven that behaviour is contagious. One doesn’t even need peer pressure, peer perception is enough. So if the herd acts with the behaviour you want, shout it from the rooftops, but if they are acting in a way you are trying to change, keep very quiet about it. This worked in Tanzania where the social problem of sugar daddies was countered by making them an object of fun and derision.

The book rounds off with numerous examples and suggested comebacks to typical objections to change. There is also a linked website with more resources at www.switchthebook.com/resources

Good luck and happy switching…



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