Switch: How To Change When Change Is Hard

By Chip and Dan Heath

Rating 10/10

Best Line #1:  A trainer in California taught six elephants to stand in a line and urinate on command and they hadn’t even completed a Myers-Briggs.

Best Line #2: There is no moment when a monkey learns to skateboard. There’s a process.

Two Things No One Likes

Here’s one of society’s greatest dilemmas: no one likes change and no one likes the way things are.

You can see this in everything. On one side, the specter of change threatens people with the prospect of loss (if this changes, I lose X). On the other side, the threat of permanence makes people just as scared (if this doesn’t change, I’ll never gain Y). Even more fascinating, a single person can inhabit both attitudes at the same time for the same thing. “I don’t want to see any change to this but I understand that there really needs to be an improvement.”

This seems most common in the public debates of our time and it reminds me of the lesson from Woodrow Wilson. I imagine he said this on the heels of his strained effort to create a League of Nations:

If you want to make enemies, try to change something. — Woodrow Wilson

Indeed. It’s a hard lesson many noble people learn quickly when they take on leadership roles. And I use the term “leadership” in the broadest sense. You don’t have to be a U.S. President to suffer this. Some of the first arguments I ever saw between non-married, non-chemically-altered adults occured when a recreation-league soccer coach decided to change the starting lineup for a 14-year-old’s Saturday match.

That change, which led to one child sitting and the other starting, triggered as angry a reaction as any you’ll find in a national protest demonstration. Right there on the field. Just minutes before the game.

Why?

I have my theories. We all do. Few things are more satisfying than pondering the psychology of someone’s angry reactions to the world. But as fun as it is, understanding why change angers someone is less productive than knowing what to do about it. This is where our book Switch can offer tremendous help.

This week’s articles introduced important foundational topics on change, including the following:

  1. Don’t Bring A Powerpoint To A Knife Fight
  2. What To Do When You Can’t Define The Problem
  3. Shrink The Change To Make The Progress
  4. Positive Emotions Broaden Thinking; Negative Emotions Narrow

There is far more to consider and the book is a very enjoyable read. (As an aside, everything the Heath Brothers write is fantastic. I’m a big fan.) So rather than spoil that experience, I’ll share a few more foundational insights on four core elements from the book. It’s hard to pick just four; I never like giving an incomplete picture. So please read the rest of the book to ease my concern!

The Three-Part Framework for Guiding Change

Again, I’m a fan of the Heath Brothers and this is partly because they always write a great first chapter. This book is certainly no exception. After establishing the core mental model of the Elephant and the Rider, they deliver the book’s central framework with three critical points for making the change you seek:

  1. Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.
  2. Motivate the Elephant. what looks like laziness is often exhaustion. The Rider can’t get his way by force for very long. So it’s critical that you engage people’s emotional side—get their Elephants on the path and cooperative.
  3. Shape the Path. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. We call the situation (including the surrounding environment) the “Path”. When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant.

Honestly, if we could just give a bit of forethought to these three concepts, we could greatly improve both our odds and our attitudes about change efforts. In my own work, I can see many instances where my failed campaigns were the result of not doing enough in one of these three areas.

One nuance to keep in mind is that this framework is not sequential so much as it is simultaneous. At every point of engagement, I think we have to try to do all three things to the best extent possible. Few, if any, decide to change because the direction for doing so is clear. They must be motivated in the same breath and pointed in a direction.

We’re going to smile, deliver this hamburger quickly, with the best freshness possible, because we’re good at what we do and we make it look easy. So get to your stations, warm up that grill, and let’s make the best experience our customers will have all day.

I doubt these sort of pep talks occur in a fast-food restaurant but I kinda wish they did. I kinda wish I had these sort of pep talks in every work environment. And make no mistake, a few poetic, forceful words aren’t enough but, as this might illustrate, you have to touch all three points of the framework (the rider, the elephant, the path) to make something resonate.

Clarity Dissolves Resistance.

A word from our authors:

To spark movement in a new direction, you need to provide crystal-clear guidance. That’s why scripting is important—you’ve got to think about the specific behavior that you’d want to see in a tough moment.

I really love this guidance because it shows how we, as leaders of any given change effort, big or small, must improve our delivery if we want to see results. Are people failing to catch on? Do you see a lot of doubt? A lot of resistance? If we use our three-part framework to diagnose the situation, chance are really high that the lack of success is due to the lack of clarity.

Not clarity around the goal, either. I wrote this week about the important of having a strong, compelling goal to reinforce the reasons why change is necessary. That is vital, of course, but much of the resistance we face isn’t due to a lack of agreement about the destination; rather, it’s caused by the confusion of how to get there.

To put it another way, our authors suggest:

When you want someone to behave in a new way, explain the “new way” clearly. Don’t assume the new moves are obvious.

Honestly, this is one of those critical points that separates the rookies from the professionals. A doctor or teacher or manager that can’t illustrate the initial first steps is highly unlikely to get a good response from their audience. And can you blame the audience? Whether it’s a thirteen-year-old child or a long-tenured accountant who has watched Division Vice Presidents come and go, some of this is about “shaping the path” and some of this is simply about demonstrating credibility.

For those who believe in the goal, establishing the first few critical moves gets them … moving. For those who don’t believe, establishing the first few steps at least shows them that (a) you know what you want, and (b) what “minimum-level compliance” looks like. Change doesn’t require everyone to be champions. But it does require concerted effort even from the unwilling. That won’t happen if you can’t demonstrate and describe, with clarity and simplicity, what you’re wanting others to do. It serves up an important test:

Don’t seek a change effort until you can describe and demonstrate the first steps.

This is further supported by some fantastic wisdom in the book about planning your efforts. As they describe, we often spend a lot of time trying to script the middle phases of a project. For whatever reason, we fail to clearly set up the start of the work but have a firm sense of what the midpoint should. And seldom does the midpoint of the effort reflect what we envisioned. Then panic ensues, doubt creeps in, and a lot of change efforts are then abandoned.

So it’s a good idea to not do that. Better instead to embrace the “fuzzy middle” or, as Scott Belsky called it in his book on the topic, The Messy Middle. When examining the broad arc of any change effort, and visualizing the work, we are better served by the following:

Be clear on the beginning, fuzzy in the middle, and clear on the end.

The fuzzy, messy middle is where all the learning occurs. No human operates in some simple binary function of Plan and Do. We can’t even follow our own grocery list! So to bookend our focus on the beginning and the end with flexibility in the middle is to recognize what is going to happen anyway. This phenomenon of the messy middle is so common, so universal, that the folks at IDEO captured it in an illustration that everyone can understand.

IDEO project mood chart – illustration from Ian Moritz

Seth Godin talks about this, too, in his beautiful writing on the idea of “the local max”.  

They Need To Feel It

“The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people, and behavior change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to people’s feelings. This is true even in organization that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement, even among people who think of themselves as smart in an MBA sense. In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.” — from The Heart of Change, John P. Kotter

The idea of sparking emotion to trigger action is well-stated by the highlighted quote above. But car salesmen probably say it even better. Or more memorably:

The feel of the wheel will seal the deal.

I am a proud member of the rationalist bunch. I don’t know if we have a club but I’m sure that Spock is our mascot. Along with an abacus. Even so, I can never deny the fundamental truth that far too much of the change that occurs (for me and others) is the stuff of emotion.

The big stuff, anyway. Make no mistake, the little stuff garners no feeling. There is no emotion that goes into my choice for where to purchase gasoline. I choose in a way that would make my fellow rationalists proud. But changing a habit? The elephant does indeed hold sway. Our authors know this and so they explain something really important that can set our intuition on this idea:

The sequence of change is not ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE, but rather SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.

Within this idea, it’s important to also remember that what we feel, be it positive or negative emotion, also matters. Thursday’s article examined this to great detail. So when we script the first few moves, it’s vital to do so with confidence and enthusiasm. That seems to be the only way I’ve ever sparked a real change. Meanwhile, the resistance to change is always strengthened by negative emotions.

Happy, excited, curious, and enthusiastic? Those are emotions that compel change.

Tired, skeptical, unsure, and frustrated? Those are emotions that resist change.

To go back to our car salesmen, it isn’t that the physical “feel” of the wheel is what seals the deal. It’s the feeling one gets from holding the wheel that does the trick. If the feeling is happiness, excitement, curiosity, and enthusiasm, the customer is going to make a big change in their life: they’re going to buy that car.

The point here, I think, is that we should stress test our change efforts by seeing what sort of feelings they engender. If your starting point and ending point for the change effort don’t spark positive emotions, rethink your approach. It hurts the rationalist in me to say that but it’s inescapable. I wish everyone could just follow the data, the logic, the artful strategy we might devise from the foundations of last week’s book, but alas.

The good part about this is that it tests your own willingness. If you, as a leader or teacher or coach or parent, cannot feel these positive emotions about the effort yourself, then why on earth would you expect others to? The emotional reaction is a gut-check, in other words. You must have a sense of not just deep knowledge on how to begin the change but, from that rational point of view, you must have excitement, too.

Change isn’t an event. It’s a process.

Here’s one of the lines in the book:

There is no moment when a monkey learns to skateboard. There’s a process. Same with a child learning to walk. And there won’t be a moment when your community starts to invest more in its school system. There will be a process. To lead a process requires persistence.  

Earlier this week, I wrote the age-old line about how Rome wasn’t built in a day. We often use this phrase at a moment when someone else feels impatient. We tell them to take their time, relax, don’t try to force things. This is a very wise thing to say but it’s only half as useful as it needs to be.

When we say “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, we tend to imply that a bit of a “hands-off” approach is what’s needed. Let things grow on their own. But underneath the natural, long-run change, there is a process, a pattern, that we need to be mindful of.

Rome wasn’t built in a day but it wasn’t built by accident, either.

So yes, give change time. But also, recognize that the process for successful change has a very specific set of core qualities. The authors’ three-part model for guiding change gives us an excellent tool for sparking the effort and sustaining it. There will be points of doubt and frustration in the “messy middle” but this is also where momentum is built, exposure is increased, adaptation occurs, and the real change becomes possible.

A responsible leader/coach/parent/teacher/adult should understand how to look for the right signs of progress in these stages. It requires patience, yes, but it requires a process, too. To that end, don’t forget the obvious common traits of a great change effort. Stay mindful of these elements and make sure they are always present. Check at all times to make sure these pieces aren’t lost. That’s the work of a proper change agent. That’s the work we’re here to do.

The elements, in brief, are described as follows:

When change works, it tends to follow a pattern. The people who change have clear direction, ample motivation, and a supportive environment.

So in your efforts today, whatever the change might be, ask yourself the following:

  1. Do people have clear direction (directions you can demonstrate)?
  2. Is there ample motivation (preferably from positive rather than negative emotions)?
  3. Is there a supportive environment (proper cues, systems, and culture)?

It takes less than three minutes to ask this every day. At the start, the middle, and perhaps the end of every team practice or board meeting or tutoring session.  Less than three minutes of mindful assessment that, in essence, defines what any management or leadership role really requires.

Conclusion

There is so much more to this beautiful book that makes it worth the read. There are terrific ideas on how to maintain the change effort with environmental cues. Then there’s the concept of “preloading” decisions in the context of the effort, a very helpful idea that lends to a sort of IFTTT logic package that I love. Finally, the case studies of successful change efforts that give me lots of ideas (the Citizens for Safe Driving campaign is utterly fascinating). So much more that illuminates how much of a change effort is truly our responsibility to deliver.

Change, of course, will forever be difficult. It is the eternal struggle. It goes by many names: drama, chaos, progress, growth. It is a lot of what we talk about at any given time and regardless of our station in life it is something we effect every day. Like our analysis of Difficult Conversations, this is one of those areas of knowledge that helps everyone with whatever we strive to do. So the book comes highly recommended. You can buy it here on Amazon.

Mental Models and Principles

  • The elephant and the rider
  • Self-control is an exhaustible resource.
  • IDEO project mood chart
  • Three part model for guiding change: direct the rider, motivate the elephant, shape the path.
  • Sometimes, data is simply TBU—true but useless.
  • Knowledge does not change behavior. We have all encountered crazy shrinks and obese doctors and divorced marriage counselors.
  • Solutions-Based Therapy and The Miracle Question
  • Success can look like a problem when there’s too much analysis.
  • To make a switch, you must script the critical moves.
  • The rider (rational part of the mind) is exhausted by ambiguity
  • Clarity dissolves resistance.
  • SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Timely) presume the emotion; they don’t generate it.
  • Black and white BHAGs (big, hair, audacious goals a’la Jim Collins) motivate the rider and the elephant. Such as BPs “No Dry Holes” initiative.
  • Specific about the beginning and the end, fuzzy about the middle
  • The sequence of change is not ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE, but rather SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.
  • If you need quick and specific action, then negative emotions might help. For all else, positive emotion is what sustains the effort.
  • Shrink the change to make the progress.
  • Instead of milestones, seek “inch pebbles”.
  • Script the critical first moves.
  • But don’t script too much. The sheer quantity of rules can smother common sense.
  • Hope is precious to a change effort. It’s Elephant fuel.
  • Select small wins that have two traits: (1) they’re meaningful, (2) they’re within immediate reach. If you can’t achieve both traits, ALWAYS choose the latter.
  • The consequences vs identity model of decision-making.
  • Growth vs fixed mindsets
  • Fundamental Attribution Error – we often attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than the situation they are in.
  • Preloaded decisions a’la cartage schemes and IFTTT approaches to habit-forming.
  • Reinforcement is the secret to sustaining effort. Steady praise and recognition at every small sign of success.
  • Our rational perspective is negative by nature. Problems are easy to spot; progress less so.
  • But the progress is precious. Shamu didn’t learn to jump through a hoop because her trainer was bitching at her.
  • Mere exposure effect.
  • Cognitive dissonance effect.
  • The people who change have clear direction, ample motivation, and a supportive environment.