Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath is a book that explores change leadership.  Like many business books, the authors use a central metaphor to illustrate their point: making a switch (read—making a change) is like convincing an elephant and its rider to change direction.  You first try to convince the rider through mental persuasion but ultimately the elephant (the emotional) is more powerful.  So in order to make a switch, one needs to direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path.

The book has relevance to our classrooms and schools because the authors reject a “top-down” approach to leadership, instead relying on persuasion and sales to bring about change.  At times, the arguments seems almost manipulative (see this article about marriage as an example) but ultimately it’s worth considering.  For example, when I sat down to write this blog post, I am thinking about the article about suicide rates in Montana and wonder how we can address that problem.

The strength of the book is the examples.  Examples of “directing the rider”:

  • A researcher tried to address malnutrition in rural Vietnam. He began by finding the “bright spots” where malnutrition isn’t as prevalent and built a program by replicating their practices.
  • The authors challenge us to “script the critical moves” because ambiguity is exhausting. One group worked to support a healthier community by challenging people to select 1% milk instead of whole milk (rather than ask people to move from whole to skim milk).  One small change was simple and the campaign was direct.
  • Authors claim we need to “point to a destination” where we remind people of the goals. Instead of simply offering data to analyze, we should point to an end point and allow people to figure out the means to get there.

Examples of “motivating the elephant”:

  • Instead of “analyze-think-change” (the popular approach to change), the authors argue that the process is “see-feel-change” meaning that emotion is the primary motivator and we can adjust changes on the fly.
  • As opposed to consequences (“what do I get out of this?”), the authors believe people choose out of identity (“who do I want to be?”). He uses the example of hotel maids.  When they are told they have been meeting the daily requirements for exercise through their work, the majority go on to do even more exercise and begin to lose weight.  Those that aren’t told they are meeting the requirements rarely exercise outside of their work.
  • The authors believe in the small steps. For example, cleaning a house can be overwhelming.  So they suggest taking the smallest, easiest steps first and breaking the entire job into small tasks.
  • Likewise, they explore the wisdom of Dave Ramsey’s wealth promotion system. Ramsey argues that someone should pay off small balances first (as opposed to the higher interest accounts) in order to gain momentum.
  • On St. Lucia, the government was challenged to protect the parrot. Without any power and not much of a budget, the government launched a PR campaign to give the parrot an identity with the island and to establish the idea that islanders “take care of their own.”
  • The authors argue that a growth mindset allows a person to learn new tasks and accept new motivations. A new minimally invasive heart procedure was rolled out and the authors found that hospitals with growth mindsets were more successful because they didn’t need to be perfect on Day One.  They learned!

The authors argue that we need to “direct the path” in order to make change easier:

  • Habits are hard to break. The authors point out that “stand up meetings” are successful because it breaks the habit of long meetings.
  • The environment is crucial to supporting habits. Drinking and obesity, for example, are contagious and are supported by one’s social situations.
  • We should support the small steps in the right direction in the same way that parents support a child learning to walk.

The book works well in considering large changes such the “designated driver” movement.  First, it was important to establish the rational reasons for the healthy behavior and the reasons to avoid the punishment (directing the rider).  In order to motivate the elephant, the movement pushed Hollywood to include examples of designated drivers in movies and TV shows.  Then they worked to direct the path by making it easy (and cheap!) to call a cab or getting free non-alcoholic drinks for designated drivers.  Think about the change that has taken place over the last 20 years!

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