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Book Review: Switch - How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Alcide DeGagné

The authors of one of the most popular business books of the last decade, Made to Stick, make their return with Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is HardChip Heath, a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Stanford University, and his brother Dan, Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE Center, team up again to bring a fresh and approachable style of communication to the discussion of change management – a topic not well known for an abundance of either.

Chip & Dan Heath’s take on managing change is a refreshing approach to the subject, and one that I believe can be very powerful for practicing managers and consultants alike. Rather than adopt the usual academic approach - or the overly simplistic ‘check list’ approach - the authors anchor their methodology in recent research in behavioural science and illustrate these findings through insightful case studies. This is what makes the Switch approach both practical and powerful.

{images1}For the first time in a long time, managers can easily grasp the basic concepts without believing they must become experts.

Their model is based on the view that humans are a mix of intellect and emotion living in highly variable environments. At the risk of oversimplification, their approach suggests that our ability to ‘Switch’, i.e. change in difficult circumstances, is governed by:

The Rider

Our understanding of the rational case – what is the logical requirement for change?  This involves our left brain which by definition is good at planning, analysing and related activities. The Heaths dub this the ‘Rider’ based on the book The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt . They playfully refer to this side of the change journey as ‘informing the Rider’.

The Elephant

Our emotional investment in the potential outcomes has a direct impact on our ability to make the required effort without which difficult change is impossible. Research demonstrates that without the emotional component, which in decision making is much larger than our cognitive element, it is particularly difficult to change.

In keeping with Haidt’s research, Chip and Dan adopt his ‘Elephant’ label for this.

Consequently, they postulate that the rational brain - the ‘Rider’ - is virtually helpless in achieving change without strong alignment with our emotional ’Elephant’. In keeping with their witty approach, the authors suggest that successful change requires dealing with the challenge of ‘motivating the Elephant’.

The Path

Finally, successful change is only possible when the change approach fits the contextual situation. For most of us who work in organizational change, this would translate into understanding the culture, the climate, and the external demands of the organization.  The Heaths refer to this aspect of understanding the situation as ‘defining the path’. 

For most managers, this situation is just ‘the way we do things here,’ and anything NIH (not invented here) doesn’t work.  For the change professional, the situation can be understood by ‘the change readiness assessment’.

The Elephant is stronger than The Rider

In summary, difficult change demands that the 'Rider' clearly understand what needs to change and why. Without a clear cognitive understanding that is well articulated and communicated to all involved, no change is possible.

Even with clarity of purpose, however, a second paramount condition must be met - all stakeholders need to be seized with a desire to see it through to achievement. If there is an emotional reluctance to pursue the change objective, the 'Rider' cannot achieve the change successfully.  The ‘Rider’ cannot overpower the ‘Elephant’.

The 'Path' is the strategy that defines the practical process for participants to both visualize and understand how to make it happen. Defining the 'Path' provides a learning tool and process for making it happen.

So why is this important?

So why is this contribution important to managing change? It’s important because it provides a workable framework, in simple terms, backed up by solid research enabling front line managers and Organizational Development (OD) practitioners to communicate more effectively. And the bonus is that managers don’t need to try to become OD practitioners to do so!


Thanks, Alcide, for this insightful review.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time, and now I have the impetus to get moving.

It’s about time that someone took this typically esoteric topic and brought it to the masses.  Hiding behind the robes and the language of the “enlightened” does nothing to help the OD consultant meet the needs of their clientele.  Rather, by having everyone working from a common base of knowledge and understanding a common language, all parties seeking effective change strategies can work more productively together.

By Geoff Schaadt on 2010/11/10

Alcide, this is a good review of a book on my rather long short list of books to read. Like Geoff, I think I’ll get to it soon.

In order for all stakeholders to see a change through to achievement, there has to be trust—in the vision, in it’s purpose and in the stakeholders, themselves.  I think it is important to address this up front as a means of better bringing the ‘elephant’ and the ‘rider’ into alignment. Certainly, this involves what Geoff suggests in his comment above - seeking common understanding and a common language.

By Delaney Tosh on 2010/11/10

Thanks Geoff and Delaney for the kind words. Actually, Switch was on my reading list in late summer but only became a reality in late October! But definitely it’s worth the effort.

Your comment about trust Delaney speaks to the Heaths’ Elephant in a profound way. Trust is 90% emotional in my experience; it’s an instinctive reaction that we act on and is key to motivating the change. I think managers get that but in a world where change is really hard, our trust quotiant can get eroded and so we go with the rational case.

I think as OD practitioners we make the same mistake as well. If a client group clearly understands what needs to be done, then they just need to get on to it, right? Find the resources ($) and make the leadership commitment to do it! If they really want it, they’ll do it. More often than not, managers will move to implement using their formal authority (coersion??), mistaking the group’s desire to please the boss as commitment.

This is another refreshing thing about the Switch model, the model assumes that really difficult change are those situations where one CANNOT rely on coercisive authority to force the change. But we all know that reliance on coersion to effect change is a lot like having a fight with a hot water bottle: you punch one end and the other end pops up!

By Alcide DeGagn on 2010/11/11

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Posted by Alcide DeGagné
Posted on November 10, 2010

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Categories: change management, current events, knowledge transfer, learning, organizational development