Switch by Chip and Dan Heath – Managing Change

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A change for me is my 2020 goal of reading one book a month. Its been a positive change that I have enjoyed even though I have slipped behind a bit. Change and managing change is a challenge for all of us. This review is on a book called Switch: How to change things when change is hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. These two brothers have also written the bestseller Made to Stick.

The focus of Switch is to understand how and why implementing some change is so challenging and how this can be overcome. We all know that change can be difficult and people are resistant to it for various reasons.

Typical obstacles to managing change are

  • resist new ideas
  • you’ll do it later
  • don’t know how to
  • you’re not motivated
  • can’t change old habits
  • you encounter problems
  • you don’t see the need to
  • the problem just seems to big.

Book Review

This book deals with all those challenges in a very constructive and teaching way. Interestingly though, not all change is like that. Changes like having children or changing jobs are huge changes but we don’t resist those, infact we dive head first into them.

This was an interesting point for me because I didn’t really think about positive reactions to change only negative ones. The authors consider this all and then understand and unpack it in detail. They explain their theory of how our brains process change. This book is for anyone who has to implement change and get other people on board.

The theory and explanations are very practical and useful. I came away with a tool box of methods and ideas. There are several case studies and clinics where a real example is explained. The steps on how to deal with the change are discussed. I found it easy to identify with all of these examples.

At the end of the book, there is a handy one page guide. There are and 12 typical problems of managing change that you can look out for and be able to deal with. In addition, there are more resources and references to help with implementing the change techniques.

The Rider and the Elephant

The analogy that they use for how your brain works was very clever and is the crux of the book. Our brains have two systems, first there is the emotional side that is instinctive and feels pain and pleasure. Second, there the rationale, the conscious part that analyses and looks into the future.

These two systems work together like a Rider on top of an Elephant. The rider is the rational part and the elephant is the emotional part.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

From this you can see that the rider can steer the elephant and tell it where to go. Problem is that if the elephant doesn’t want to go that way then the rider will be stuck and can’t move forward. Also the elephant is large indicating that emotion is a large part of the decision.

On the other hand if the rider does not know where to go or isn’t clear about the direction then the elephant can wonder around aimlessly and possibly get into trouble.

The third element of change referred to is that of a path. If there is a clearly laid out path then it will help both the rider and the elephant to reach the destination. These three elements, directing the rider, motivating the elephant and shaping the path are expanded in detail in the book.

Directing the rider – rational part

First, directing the rider is all about providing crystal clear direction with no ambiguity and no wiggle room. Resistance to change inevitably has people looking for problems. To overcome this find the bright spots where things are working and focus on these instead. These can give direction too as they will indicate what you should do more of.

The rider loves to analyse and consider options and solutions but this can lead to confusion and decision paralysis. So ambiguous goals need to be translated into concrete behaviours and actions. This requires eliminating ambiguity and scripting  critical moves.

The destination needs to be attractive, ideally a “gut-smakking goal”. This will allow the rider to apply his strengths to see how to get there. It is also the opportunity to show the rider where you are headed and showing the elephant why the journey is worthwhile. 

Motivating the elephant – getting buy in

The elephant needs to be cooperative so here you have to appeal to peoples emotions and stir up a deep motivation. This is achieved by having a behaviour script and appealing to their feelings. They need to see and feel before they will get to the change.

Shrinking the change will help people feel like it is achievable. Do this by celebrating  progress already made and breaking it down into bite sized chunks. Growing the people and instilling an aspirational sense of identity is a strong motivator.

Shape the path – be aware of situational influences

This path is the creating an enabling environment where you identify and  remove blockages. The reason people are often quoted as being the barriers to change is not always due to their behavior. Very often it is due to the situation they are operating in. Identifying and eliminating these situations is key.

Creating a path is also about creating new habits that become automatic requiring less self control and contributing to the change. You need to rally the herd. Change in groups of people is affected by individuals considering what the others are doing and thinking.

Rally the supporters and reformers and create a safe space for them to influence the rest of the team. Reinforcement is the secret to getting past the first step of your long journey and on to the second, third, and hundredth steps.

7 tips I learned about managing change from this book

  1. Change is tinkering with behaviours that have become automatic. Changing these requires a large amount of self-control which is exhaustive
  2. Big problems are rarely solved by big solutions as these big solutions are what we can’t change or don’t have influence over. Instead, a sequence of small changes over a period of time is what brings about big change. This would be focussing on the things that you have influence over and can change.
  3. Create a positive illusion affecting change. Motivate action by looking at what has already been done. This shows people that they are closer to the finish line than they might think.
  4. Be alert to failure upfront by anticipating and acknowledging it so that it is less alarming and easier to work through.
  5. Use action triggers to automate behavior and preload a decision. Do this by saying when x happens then I will do Y. Suddenly then Y will happen more easily requiring less self-control effort.
  6. Publicize the progress for everyone to see. This puts pressure on the nonperformers to up their game
  7. Change isn’t an event; it’s a process. Big changes can start with very small steps. Small changes tend to snowball.