How to Bring About Change and Get Your Elephant and Rider On The Same Page with Switch

Should I Read It 017 – Switch

Oh change, the invisible target we try to hit on our way to become the better people we want to be. Change isn’t merely a target; it’s a moving target. One that requires constant work. We fight ourselves even on the changes we know will be beneficial for our life.

Like sleep. Most of us know we don’t get enough, but when it comes time to turn off whatever show we’re binge-watching on Netflix, we can’t break the habit of just watching until we realize we’re falling asleep.

If you’re interested in making changes to the areas in your life that have plagued you as being hard, then Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, is for you.

This is a book to help you change things.

The goal of the book doesn’t just stop with the changes you want to make to yourself though; it’s really about changing you and the organizations/teams you’re in.

For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently. Your brother has got to stay out of the casino; your employees have got to start booking coach fares. Ultimately, all change efforts boil down to the same mission: Can you get people to start behaving in a new way?

The Heath’s approach change with the analogy of a Rider and an Elephant1. The Rider can force the Elephant to head in the desired direction for only so long. Once the Elephant has had enough, it heads off in the direction it desires the Rider is now along for the ride.

The Rider is our willpower, and the Elephant is our desire/emotions.

I may want to resist eating all the cookies, and my Rider does win out for a while, but if there are cookies sitting around at some point, the Rider loses out to the Elephant. The cookies end up in my belly.

In this case, the situation of cookies readily available is the first problem and fixing that is the third section of the book they call Shape the Path.

Switch, is broken up into three main sections. The first deals with the Rider, and how to make sure that intellectually we understand why a change should happen.

The Second section is all about the Elephant, and how to bring our emotions and motivation on board, so we don’t exhaust the Rider.

The third section covers how we can Shape the Path and is summed up in this single quote:

What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

To make change stick, we need to address all three of these areas.

Directing the Rider

The Rider will spin his wheels indefinitely unless he’s given clear direction. That’s why to make progress on a change, you need ways to direct the Rider. Show him where to go, how to act, what destination to pursue. And that’s why brights spots are so essential, because they are your best hope for directing the Rider when you’re trying to bring about change.

It’s easy to come up with elaborate ways to accomplish the change we want to see. We sit and plan and plan and sit, but little gets done.

The ability to plan and direct is a strength of the Rider, but also it’s weakness2. Like the quote says, the Rider is prone to continuing to analyze without taking action.

You can combat this by asking yourself “What is the first small thing that would show me something is happening?” If you want to go to the gym, this is not going to the gym; it’s taking the time to put your gym clothes out the night before, so you’re ready to go as soon as you get up.

This idea of a small goal is called The Zorro Circle and is covered in good detail in The Happiness Advantage. Here is a definition of from The Happiness Advantage.

The concept of the Zorro Circle is a powerful metaphor for how we can achieve our most ambitious goals in our jobs, our careers, and our personal lives. One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our behavior matters; that we have control over our future. Yet when our stresses and workloads seem to mount faster than our ability to keep up, feelings of control are often the first things to go, especially when we try to tackle too much at once. If, however we first concentrate our efforts on small manageable goals, we regain the feeling of control so crucial to performance. – The Happiness Advantage

It’s not some grand gesture in a relationship that’s doing poorly; it’s your husband making you coffee or bringing it home for you. It’s one small piece of a much larger puzzle that starts to look right.

In an organization, this means looking for the bright spots. Those spots that are working well despite the same access (or lack of access) to tools that everyone else has.

Best of all, bright spots solve the “Not Invented Here” problem. Some people have a knee-jerk skeptical response to “imported” solutions.

Then you use those bright spots and figure out what is different. From there, you get the teams to help bring the bright spot behaviours throughout the rest of your organization with small steps towards change.

Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades.

You limit the choices available to the Rider3 so that the only way to go is towards the behaviours you want. Limiting options is key because of Decision Fatigue4, you can’t keep making great decisions all day. This is what tires out our rider and decisions are all around us all the time.

The more choices the Rider is offered, the more exhausted the Rider gets.

The Rider gets exhausted, and this is where the Elephant takes over.

It’s more than just limiting decisions though, you need to make sure that the change is understood by all the people that must participate in it. Assuming that the new path is visible to your team is a bad idea.

If you are leading a change effort, you need to remove the ambiguity from your vision of change. Granted, this is asking a lot. It means that you’ll need to understand how to script the critical moves, to translate aspirations into actions. It’s not good enough to ask your team to “be more creative” or to “tighten up on the purse strings.” That’s like telling the American public to “be healthier.”

You have to point out the destination and make it attractive (which is an Elephant thing). If your people don’t see the new direction as something that benefits them, they’re not going to buy into the change.

Your explanation can’t be fluffy or ambiguous. Ambiguity will allow people to easily fool themselves into thinking that they’re heading towards the goal when they’re going in the opposite direction.

If you’re worried about the possibility of rationalization at home or at work, you need to squeeze out the ambiguity from your goal.

As you see success, you’ll also likely see failure. When you see failure happening head back to the bright spots and clone them.

As you analyze your situation, you’re sure to find some things that are working better than others. Don’t obsess about the failures. Instead, investigate and clone successes.

Once you’ve learned to script the key decisions, it’s time to learn how to motivate the Elephant.

Motivate the Elephant

Positive illusions pose an enormous problem with regard to change. Before people can change, before they can move in a new direction, they’ve got to get their bearings. But positive illusions make it hard for us to orient ourselves — to get a clear picture of where we are and how we’re doing.

People overestimate how much they exercise and underestimate how much they eat. We do the same thing with sleep; we overestimate how much sleep we’re getting.

We fool ourselves by making the measuring stick favourable to us.

One reason we’re able to believe that we’re better-than-average leaders and drivers and spouses and team players is that we’re defining those terms in ways that flatter us.

For our spouse, we may speak the love language of gifts5, and so we give gifts to our spouse. But if they most naturally speak in time spent and we spend lots of time golfing or running, we’re missing the mark.

When you look at your team, you need to frame the change in a way that shows them they’re closer to the end than they anticipate.

People find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than to be at the starting gate of a shorter one.

The tendency to favour a longer journey that’s partly done is why Dave Ramsey tells you to start your debt snowball with the $20 you owe a friend. Yes, the ‘numbers’ may say that paying off the highest interest loan is best, but it’s also often so big that you don’t make any notable forward progress on it for months.

Paying off that $20 to a friend and then that $100 on a store credit card has moved the needle. You now have two fewer debts, and you’re excited about the progress. By the time you get to the big debts, you’re motivated to keep going because you remember all the progress you’ve already made.

Dave has set up, not huge milestones but inch pebbles, to use the terms from Switch.

You can’t count on these milestones to occur naturally. To motivate change, you’ve got to plan for them.

Like I mentioned above, what is the first little step that will show you something is changing? For a severely backlogged support team that wants to get down to 2 hour response times from 1 week celebrate when it’s at six days.

Celebrate again at five days and 4 and … every single day until you get down to the two hours you want.

Each celebration breeds hope that the big goal is doable.

When you engineer early success, what you’re really doing is engineering hope. Hope is precious to a change effort. It’s Elephant fuel.

Unfortunately, just because you set out a goal and plan to celebrate the little milestones, doesn’t mean it’s all going to be daisies and roses. Failure will happen. That support team that moved from 6 day response times to 4 days will get up to 5 again and then need to look hard at what needs to change.

Failing is often the best way to learn, and because of that, early failure is a kind of necessary investment.

You need to prepare your teams6 for this. There is a study showing that excellent nurses told their patients that the needle would hurt a bit but they’d try to be gentle. Compared to nurses that said it wouldn’t hurt, those people that were told it would hurt a bit rated the pain as less.

They had their expectations set properly, and thus the pain was framed in a way that allowed them to have the best experience possible.

In times of change, we need to remind ourselves and others, again and again, of certain basic truths: Our brains and our abilities are like muscles. They can be strengthened with practice.

Shape the Path

This last section of the book is my favourite. Mostly because it lines up so well with the things I do to get myself 5.5 solid, productive distraction-free hours in 6 hours of office time.

I shape my path by ensuring that there is nothing to distract me.

What looks like a person problem is often a situation problem.

For most of you, the problem isn’t so much you as it is the distractions you let in. You keep your phone ready at hand when you should be writing or coding. Then in a moment of Decision Fatigue, you “just check Twitter for a second” and that becomes 30 minutes.

If you put more intention into shaping your path, you’ll remove the opportunity to have these distractions.

If you want people to change, you can provide clear direction (Rider) or boost their motivation and determination (Elephant). Alternatively, you can simply make the journey easier. Create a steep downhill slope and give them a push. Remove some friction from the trail. Scatter around lots of signs to tell them they’re getting close.
In short, you can shape the Path.

Make it easy to do the behaviour you want and hard to do the stuff you don’t want. This can come in the form of pay or recognition or processes.

There is a story about FedEx at the beginning where they weren’t getting the package turn around times they needed at night. They tried all sorts of things but what made the difference was changing their pay structure. Instead of paying hourly, you got paid a flat rate for your shift. That meant if you finished quickly you were done and could go home.

Unsurprisingly, packages started moving faster, and they got the turn around they needed.

If you spend too much, freeze your credit card in a block of ice and make sure you don’t save your credit card numbers in any online store.

If you’re prone to check email at the park with your kids, either don’t take the phone with you or remove email from it.

This may sound like hard change, so to make it easier you need to plan when and where you’ll do these hard activities.

People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture — to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in. We all want to wear the right clothes, to say the right things, to frequent the right places. Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious, sometimes in surprising ways.

Chip and Dan Heath call this visualization action triggers. In short, when given a hard task to do, say write an essay on your Christmas that needs to be handed in by December 26th, you’re more likely to do it if you visualize when and where you’ll do it.

Write down your ideal morning with no social media. Where will you be? What will you be doing? With this in hand, you’re more likely to accomplish the goal and break the habit of “just checking” what’s going on with your social poison of choice.

At work, get your team to write down how they’ll accomplish the new behaviours. How will they feel? When will they do it and where will they be? Planning will help ensure that the change happens.

“A long journey starts with a single step.” As clichés go, that’s pretty wise.
But you know what else starts with a single step? An ill-conceived amble that you abandon after a few minutes.

Recommendation for Switch by Chip and Dan Heath

While I don’t think that Chip and Dan Heath put quite enough emphasis on habit formation and how to form amazing habits, they provide an excellent framework to start building up good change in your life and organization.

Some further reading to support this would be Pivot, but only the section on Piloting change7. I’m currently reading Better than Before, and though I don’t love the author’s style, it’s shaping up to have some helpful stuff.

I do think that Switch is a good starting place if you’re looking to bring lasting change to your life and business. So, go get Switch.

Get Switch on Amazon

photo credit: ripster55 cc


  1. They borrowed this analogy from The Happiness Hypothesis 
  2. Because almost always our strengths taken to extremes are our biggest weaknesses. 
  3. Yes the start foreshadowing Shaping the Path right at the beginning of the book. 
  4. This is the tendency to have a harder time making good decisions the longer you have to make decisions. See Decision Fatigue on Wikipedia 
  5. If you’ve never heard of love languages read The Five Love Languages 
  6. And you need to prepare yourself for setbacks. 
  7. Most of that book is, well not great. I did a review of Pivot if you want to get a better idea of my thoughts. 
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard Book Cover Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard
Chip and Dan Heath
Decision-Making & Problem Solving
Crown Business
February 16 2010
305

Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in our companies, in our communities, and in our own lives?

The primary obstacle is a conflict that’s built into our brains, say Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the critically acclaimed bestseller Made to Stick. Psychologists have discovered that our minds are ruled by two different systems—the rational mind and the emotional mind—that compete for control. The rational mind wants a great beach body; the emotional mind wants that Oreo cookie. The rational mind wants to change something at work; the emotional mind loves the comfort of the existing routine. This tension can doom a change effort—but if it is overcome, change can come quickly.

In Switch, the Heaths show how everyday people—employees and managers, parents and nurses—have united both minds and, as a result, achieved dramatic results:

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