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Switch – Shape The Path

January 22, 2014

SwitchWe are frequently blind to the power of situations.”

In Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath argue that to create change, whether on a small or large scale, it’s important to engage the emotions of those who will be making the change.  Using the metaphor of a rider attempting to direct an elephant along a new, unfamiliar path (for more on that, see here), the Heath brothers say it’s not enough to apply one’s rational, analytical powers (the “rider”) or to appeal to people’s emotional, instinctive strengths (the “elephant”).  In a crucially important third section—one that separates Switch from the category of ultimately self-defeating “self-help” books—they force the reader to confront the importance of the “path”:  the context within which people are operating as they seek to create change.

Tweak The Environment:  According to the Heaths, one obstacle to change is the “Fundamental Attribution Error”:  attributing a problem to the individual(s) when it’s actually the surrounding environment that enables and encourages the offending behavior(s).  The CEO of a company that used multiple flammable chemicals in its manufacturing processes writing a letter to his employees pleading with them to set fewer fires.  The spouse who points to her partner’s “stubbornness” as the reason for their marital problems.  The hospital administrators blaming nurses’ inattention to their job for a high rate of errors in administering medications to patients.

In each case—and in several others the Heaths discuss—successful change came about because of changes in the surrounding environment that then made it easier for people to work and interact more effectively.

Build Habits:  Habits can be good or bad, and good habits in one situation can be bad habits in another situation.  Habits should, the Heaths say, “serve the mission“.  The general in charge of logistics during the first Iraq War held his 30 minute daily staff meeting in a room without chairs.  The habit of standing forced speakers (and listeners!) to be more focused and engaged.  The new principal of the elementary school with the lowest test scores in the entire state of Tennessee—and with severe disciplinary problems—revamped the first 20 minutes of the school day:  having teachers greet children individually as they arrived, escort them into a brief, focused, morning assembly before leading them in silent procession to their classrooms, ready to learn.  Discipline problems almost vanished and test scores rose.

One useful tool for developing new habits is what the Heaths call “action triggers”.  An action trigger is nothing more than a quick mental plan for how someone will accomplish something:  I’ll go to the gym tomorrow morning after I drop my child off at school.  I’ll eat two cups of soup a day when I’m dieting.  (Even better, I’ll make a pot of soup Sunday afternoon so I have my two-cups-a-day servings waiting in the refrigerator.)  They cite research documenting powerful impact of this one, simple mental tool.

Rally The Herd:  Humans are social creatures and we take cues from those around us.  If we’re at a party where there’s lots of drinking and smoking, we’ll tend to drink and smoke more.  If we’re at a job where people filter in and slowly “ramp up”, then we’ll tend to accomplish less in the first hour of work.

To “trample a new path”, don’t go it alone, the Heaths say.  Find ways to gather like-minded people and use your collective power:  first to analyze the situation you’re in and the change you’d like to accomplish, and then to act together to move towards that goal.  One of the most dramatic examples (not, alas, used by the Heaths—this is a business management handbook, not a revolutionary politics handbook) in recent history is the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the nonviolent revolutions of 1989-90 across eastern and central Europe.

Time and again, leaders of those movements talked about the importance of creating “free spaces”—in coffeehouses, church basements, night clubs, union halls, etc.—where like-minded people could discover each other, share their experiences, develop a collective vision and begin to act on it.  (Most of those leaders had spent years in prison for their efforts to create “free spaces”; authoritarians understand the threatening dynamics of change, too.)

The Heaths conclude with an exhortation to “keep the switch going” by continuing to reinforce (positively!) the change you’ve created.  Notice, praise and reward colleagues for their (new) good behavior and results.  Small changes, with a push in the right direction, can become big changes that have their own momentum.

We can say this much with confidence:  When change works, it tends to follow a pattern.  The people who change have clear direction, ample motivation, and a supportive environment.  In other words, when change works, it’s because the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path are all aligned in support of the switch.

For more on Switch see:

Switch:  The Elephant, The Rider And The Path

Switch:  Direct The Rider

Switch – Motivate The Elephant


From → Books, Politics

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