“Switch How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath Business Book Review


Business mavens, Brothers Heath released their new book, entitled, “Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard,” (Broadway, 2010), in February. The authors address change at the individual, organizational, and societal level. Change involves the brain’s emotional and rational side. The Heath brothers identify the overpowering emotional element as the Elephant. The rational, decision-making component is secondary and sits atop the Elephant as the Rider. When conflict between the two exists, the Rider is inherently the underdog. To make lasting change, the Elephant and Rider need to unite. Also key is having clear direction. Following is an example from each of the nine principles contained within the triad to accomplish long-term change. It’s noteworthy that the change framework benefits anyone without a vast amount of authority or resources.

DIRECT THE RIDER-Analytical, Rational Thinking.

Find the Bright Spots. In 1990 an international organization that helps needy children accepted a Vietnamese government invitation to decrease malnutrition. They earned six months to make a difference. The short timeline negated ending poverty, purifying water and building sanitation systems to address starvation. Organizers traveled to a rural village and met with mothers. Despite widespread malnutrition, some children were thriving. Why? The team searched for bright spots-successful efforts worth emulating. They discovered bright spot moms fed their children four times a day (easier on kids’ digestive systems), vs. the standard two. Another finding among several was that bright spot moms added shrimp and crab from the rice paddies into their kids meals. Cooking classes originated with bright spot moms teaching other mothers how to prepare healthy meals for their children. The mothers already had the emotional component (Elephant) – natural concern for their kids. They needed direction (Rider) not motivation. Six months later, 65 percent of the village kids were better nourished and stayed that way.

Script the Critical Moves. Doctors studied a case history of a patient with chronic arthritic hip pain. Their options were to perform drastic hip replacement surgery or administer a single untried medication. They chose the drug 47 percent vs. doing hip surgery. Another doctor set studied a similar case history with two untried drugs presented as a choice. Here, only 28 percent of the doctors chose one of the prescriptions. The remainder selected hip surgery. The study results display decision paralysis. Too many choices tax the Rider’s strength; and it will always revert to the status quo. Change creates uncertainty and ambiguity. Any successful change requires translation of ambiguous goals into concrete behaviors. Script the critical moves (not every move but key moves). In the above studies, the critical directive to “Use invasive options only as a last resort” would have resulted in more physicians choosing the drug option. Clarity dissolves the Rider’s resistance.

Point to the Destination. In the mid 1980s a popular investment firm’s research department ranked an embarrassing fifteenth in its ability to generate revenue for banks. Top executives recruited a new leader who became both GM and coach. He announced that he expected analysts to initiate at least 125 client conversations a month. He promoted a team environment; requiring analysts to cite colleagues’ work at least twice during presentations. He also declared that the firm would crack the premiere investment magazine’s Top 5. He not only scripted the critical moves (make 125 calls, cite colleagues’ work); he also created a destination postcard- a vivid picture from the near-term future that shows what could be possible. In three short years the firm leapfrogged from fifteenth to first place. When you describe a compelling destination you decrease the Rider’s ability to get lost in analysis paralysis.

MOTIVATE THE ELEPHANT-Emotional, Instinctive.

Find the Feeling. In the late 1970s, a state’s Department of Youth Services (DYS), an agency that focuses on delinquent kids; overhauled its operations. Nonprofits including group homes and halfway houses replaced youth prisons. The head of accounting for DYS ruled his division with an iron fist, earning the title of Attila the Accountant. Expense reports submitted with a single mistake like a date omission or miscalculated subtotal were returned to the offending nonprofit for corrections. The organizations operated on a shoestring budget and delayed payments jeopardized their ability to service kids. Frustrated, Attila’s colleagues invited him on a field trip to visit some participating nonprofits. He witnessed firsthand their operational and financial challenges; and returned to the office a changed man. He was still authoritarian but less nitpicky about expense report submissions, allowing the nonprofits to receive their payments faster.

Shrink the Change. A local car wash ran a promotion using loyalty cards. One customer group received an 8-stamp card, earning a free car wash once filled. Another customer set received a 10-stamp card, with 2 stamps already completed, advancing them 20 percent towards their goal. Several months later, only 19 percent of the 8-stamp customers had earned a free car wash, vs. 34 percent of the head-start group, which also earned their free car wash faster. The authors state that people find it more motivating to be partially finished with a long-term goal than to be at the starting gate of a shorter one. How could you rally your family, coworkers, community, etc. to achieve a long-term goal by highlighting what’s already been accomplished towards its completion? To motivate an uninspired Elephant, shrink the change.

Grow Your People. In 1977 the St. Lucia parrot faced extinction. Island natives undervalued the bird, some even eating it as a delicacy. No clear economic case for saving the parrot existed. Conservationists knew an analytical case for protecting the bird would fail. Instead, they implemented an emotional appeal. Their goal was to convince St. Lucians that they were the kind of people who protected their own. They wanted St. Lucians to swell with pride over their exclusive island species. The St. Lucia Parrot Campaign included T-shirts, bumper stickers and locally recorded songs about the parrot. The animal became part of the natives’ national identity. In 2008, conservationists noted that no St. Lucian had been caught shooting the parrot in fifteen years, resurrecting the species from extinction.

SHAPE THE PATH-Provide Clear Direction.

Tweak the Environment. The airline industry abides by the “sterile cockpit” rule. Anytime a plane is below 10,000 feet, either ascending or descending (the most accident-prone times), no conversation other than flight-related is permitted. At 11,000 feet the crew can talk freely. An IT group adopted the sterile cockpit tenet to advance an important software development project. They aimed to reduce new product development time from three years to nine months. They established “quiet hours” Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings before noon. It gave coders a sterile cockpit, allowing them to concentrate on complex bits of code without being interrupted. Ultimately, the group achieved their nine-month development goal. What looks like a people problem is often a situational challenge. People have a systematic tendency to ignore situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. Simple tweaks of the path can produce dramatic behavioral changes.

Build Habits. One of the subtle ways our environment influences us is by reinforcing (or deterring) our habits. Habits are important because they’re behavioral autopilot. They allow good actions to happen “free” without taxing the Rider’s self-control, which is exhaustive. To change yourself or others you need to change habits. Forming a habit involves both environmental and mental influences. “Action triggers” are effective in motivating action. They preload a decision and are most useful in difficult situations when the Rider’s self-control is strained. Action triggers create “instant habits.”

Rally the Herd. A hotel manager tested a new sign in the hotel bathrooms. It simply stated “the majority of guests at the hotel reuse their towels at least once during their stay.” Guests who got the sign were 26 percent more likely to reuse their towels. They took cues from the herd. In ambiguous situations we all look to others for cues about how to behave. Change situations often involve ambiguity along with their inherent unfamiliarity. To change things, you must pay attention to social signals. They can either guarantee a change effort or doom it. Lead an Elephant on an unfamiliar path and it’s likely to follow the herd.

The authors acknowledge that change isn’t always easy. When change works it tends to follow a pattern. People will change with clear direction, ample motivation, and a supportive environment. The Rider, Elephant and Path need to align in support of the switch. Visit the authors at http://www.heathbrothers.com.

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