Book Review: “Switch how to change things when change is hard”

I finished reading a very interesting book called “Switch how to change things when change is hard” written by brothers Chip and Dan Heath

This is a short resume about what I found more interesting.

Basically, almost every person, except few exceptions are driven by a pattern based on three parameters that create, as the book explains, a framework that we can use to perform change:

  • The Elephant: It’s the feelings. Feelings and emotions can be very powerful and are able to drive someone to any direction, independently of logic.
  • The Rider: It’s the logical thinking. But it’s a rider on an elephant that is difficult to control. If the elephant doesn’t really want to go to a specific direction, there’s very little the rider can do.
  • The Path: Although the elephant is ready to start the journey and the rider is ready to ride it, he needs a clear specific path.

With this framework it’s easier to change others or yourself. I will borrow one of the real life examples in the book. This is not the exact text, just with my own words:

Two health researchers, Steve Booth-Butterfield and Bill Reger, professors at West Virginia University decided to help people to change their habits for a healthier diet. It’s not enough to tell people that obesity is bad for their health. You have to motivate them (the elephant), then you have to give a reason (the rider) and finally tell them what to do (the path). Even if they are motivated and they know that it makes sense to loose weight, it’s not enough if they don’t know how to start. That’s why a path is paramount. Just by telling them to eat healthy is not enough.

They realised that most Americans drink milk but it’s also one of the largest sources of saturated fat in the typical American’s diet. Just by convincing people to take 1% milk the average diet would reach the recommended levels of saturated fat. What they realised is that they didn’t have to change people’s drinking behaviour, but a purchasing behaviour. They initiated a campaign in a small area with a clear message “buy 1% milk” period. Their campaign achieved great success changing people’s eating behaviour for a healthier diet. Here is the framework at work:

Engage the elephant. People want to be healthier, people want to stay in shape.

Engage the rider: People know the risks of a poor diet, they understand the health risks associated with too much fat in their diets.

Give a path: Give them a clear direction, don’t let the rider think too much about what to do, which will finally get him lost. Just buy 1% milk, period. That easy.

Few other things I found enlightening reading the book:

  • Self-control is an exhaustible resource. The rider gets tired of riding a stubborn elephant. You can’t keep people to indefinitely do something they don’t want to do
  • The bigger the change you are suggesting, the more it will sap people’s self-control. If what seemed a small hill becomes a mountain and the mountain becomes a rocky one in a winter storm, people’s self-control will disappear and you will have a demotivated and depressed crew.
  • What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.
  • What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. Maybe you weren’t able to clearly deliver the message. Don’t assume immediately that people are stubborn. Maybe a clearer explanation and the right motivational environment would allow them to see the path clearer.
  • Search for bright spots. If you don’t know how to change something, look in the past and see if there were some situations where the desired behaviour happened spontaneously. If you have to change your employees behaviour and you don’t know how to start, just try to find those situations and contexts that lead to the right behaviour and study them because you probably can replicate them. Saving you a lot of time. Sometimes the answer just appeared spontaneously somewhere in the timeline.
  • Don’t give people too many choices that create uncertainty. It yields to decision paralysis because the most familiar path is always the status quo. Give them few specific options to choose from.
  • Don’t assume that everyone will see the obvious. Explain clearly your new idea or the new way of doing things. What seems obvious to you, might not be so obvious to someone else, because your decisions are taken inside a context, experience and circumstances that weren’t the same for the rest of us.
  • Give people a clear idea of where they are heading. Like a destination postcard. Having a clear goal, keeps their vision on the path. Remember that self-control is an exhaustible resource and remember that the rider loves to find alternative paths and solutions which at the end will exhaust his energy. Keeping the final destination and the path clear is paramount.
  • If the initial request is too big, try to use the “foot in the door” technique. Ask for a smaller request, easy to accomplish. Once people accept that request, it will be easier to persuade them to do some more, and more until they accept something that initially would look unacceptable.
  • “Fundamental Attribution Error:” it’s our own tendency to attribute people’s behaviour to the way they are, like it was their fault, rather than to the situation they are in. As an example that is not in the book but that I remember from a TED talk by Edi Rama, current Prime Minister of Albania he explained how corruption was high in the public administration. People looking for a certificate or a civil answer had to go to some sort of kiosks, under the rain or the sun, waiting for their turn in long queues. Public employees worked inside a hole of 2 square meters. Under those circumstances it was obvious that people’s self-control exhausted and finally they accepted bribes. By building new offices and making the life of people and employees more confortable, the delays and the corruption in the system dropped considerably. Before blaming people for their mistakes, take a look at their environment, their circumstances and their context. By just making a small change, a bigger one can be achieved.
  • Rally the herd. Usually we do things because we see others doing it. Try to convince them that other people are already doing it. Nobody wants to be left behind.
  • Initially inertia will be an opponent to change. But in the long term, inertia will help you keeping the change in place. That’s why you can start with small changes that later will snowball in bigger ones and at that point inertia will be your friend.
  • If you have a way to show people that some part of the path was already completed, you will motivate their elephant. That’s the trick of collecting points in a gas station for example. It’s not the same to start from zero collecting stamps, than receiving a couple of stamps for free by accepting to collect them. That gives people the sense that they already completed part of the path. Always look for situations that will allow you to convince them that 20%, 50% or 60% of the path is donde.

Basically all this can be resumed to use human phycology in order to motivate people’s elephant, with minimum rider intervention by giving him a clear path and always check for self-control exhaustion. Keep fuelling people’s self-control by switching between the elephant indulgence and elephant motivation. Keep the rider busy thinking in the provided path with a clear goal, and always remind the elephant that a big deal of the path was already completed, so it looks like the change is easy to achieve.

If you have to manage a team, change someone’s bad behaviour or hack yourself into some change that seemed impossible at the beginning, this book offers a really good perspective and technique to do that.