Switch:  How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.  Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  2010.  Broadway Books.  294 pp.

It’s a lesson we keep learning over and over:  change is hard.  We fall off our diets.  We break our vow to run every morning.  We drink from the coffee cup issued to commemorate our latest corporate change effort without being able to repeat the slogan printed on it.

Not because we’re bad people.  Not because we didn’t want to change.  But because change is a lot harder than we ever want to admit.  And even when we’re prepared to admit how hard it is to change our own behavior (as we never seem to lose that extra weight), we’re not quite as gracious with the failure of others who continue smoking, fail to use the automated system, or throw their cans away instead of recycling them.

Enter Chip Heath and Dan Heath, who not only appreciate the difficulty of change, but have analyzed specifically why change is so difficult and proposed specific strategies for improving our chances of success.

Employing the helpful metaphors of the Elephant, the Rider, and the Path, the Brothers Heath owe the organizing theme of their book to an analogy found in The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt, in which

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 Rider’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.

Starting with this metaphor, the two Heaths discuss ways to harness the energy and drive of the Elephant (the heart), direct the self-control of the Rider (the mind), and smooth the Path (the environment) to make the journey easier.

Having established this basic analogy, the authors then walk through several powerful approaches to ensuring successful change:  Find the Bright Spots, Script the Critical Moves, Point to the Destination, Find the Feeling, etc.  Each chapter includes several real-life examples, taken from a broad range of organizations, industries, and experiences, including an initiative to improve early childhood nutrition in Vietnam, an effort to bring order to an elementary school overwhelmed with chaos, and a maneuver that turned one IT company’s approach to customer service upside down (for the better).

Books on change management are legion.  While I haven’t read them all, I’ve yet to see any direct contradictions among them.  Rather, each sets out to define the problem and map out a solution approach according to its own, hopefully unique, idiom.  Effective leaders find something (or a combination of somethings) that works for them.  Switch offers a lot of promise in this regard.  Its plain language belies a complex set of interrelated concepts.  The examples, nearly all based on true events, are both interesting and illustrative.  At the end of the book is a helpful list of eleven common obstacles to change and suggested strategies for overcoming them.  The strategies are essentially quick reminders of the stories and principles laid out in the rest of the book.  I can picture using that chapter as a quick refresher if I ever pick the book up for help with a specific effort to change.

Switch purports to be relevant for the behavior change of individuals (i.e., the dieters, the nail biters, the smokers who want to turn over a new leaf), organizations, and community leaders.  I’d say the most compelling examples fall under the community change category (e.g., getting citizens to think like preservationists).  But the concepts indeed seem applicable in a whole range of situations.  I just hope I remember to pick it back up the next time I’m trying to enact some change!


Incidentally, I recently re-listened to a fantastic podcast by Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad of Radiolab specifically about changing individual behavior.  They spent some time on the notions of a present self (the one who wants immediate gratification — cigarettes, beer, potato chips) and a future self (the one who wants to attain long term goals — stop smoking, drinking, gaining weight).  It sounded remarkably like the Elephant and Rider metaphor.