Switch: How to change things when change is hard (book)

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Why I read it

I read Switch - How to change things when change is hard by Chip and Dan Heath in 2018. It was a book an ex-girlfriend of mine actually suggested years prior, but I realized that it might help me with my latest little project www.strawberriesforsmiles.com.

Even in the the first chapter I had great insights into this project and various other projects - particularly the idea of setting very small achievable goals like "only drink 1% milk" (a powerful campaign triggered each time you buy milk) versus "lose weight" (vague and useless like the food pyramid campaign), because these small goals are easy to achieve and often snowball with other scripted critical moves.

I was hooked on the book immediately, and this idea that the forces in change can be extracted as a man riding an elephant down the path:

  • Rider - The rational side. Too much thinking can be bad - an elephant needs simple assertive instruction.
  • Elephant - The emotional force. Powerful once it has momentum, but can be stubborn or wander off into the forest if poorly directed.
  • The Path - The environment around you - sometimes clearing the path or even subtle changes to the environment, is the easiest way to get the elephant where you want.

I also really love the idea of the Miracle Question ("if a miracle happened overnight, what would you first notice that morning to indicate a change") and concepts like TBU (True But Useless) (too much information can convince us change is impossible, instead of focussing on bright spots) and positive-negative asymmetry.

Side Note: Riding elephants is actually quite cruel, but ignore that for the purpose of this book, or imagine a really fat horse instead. :)

How to make a Switch - Summary

This is the brilliant summary at the end of the book

For things to change, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently. Maybe it's you, maybe it's your team. Picture that person (or persons).

Each has an emotional Elephant side and a rational Rider side. You've got to reach both. And you've also got to clear the way for them to succeed. In short, you must do three things.

DIRECT the Rider

  • FOLLOW THE BRIGHT SPOTS. Investigate what's working and clone it.
    ... (eg: diet fix in Vietnam, solutions-focused therapy)
  • SCRIPT THE CRITICAL MOVES. Don't think big picture, think in terms of specific behaviors.
    ... (eg: 1% milk, four rules at the Brazilian railroad)
  • POINT TO THE DESTINATION. Change is easier when you know where you're going and why it's worth is.
    ... (eg: "you'll be 3rd graders soon", "no dry holes" at BP)

MOTIVATE the Elephant

  • FIND THE FEELING. Knowing something isn't enough to cause change. Find the feeling.
    ... (eg: piling gloves on the table, the chemotherapy video game, color shirts demos at target)
  • SHRINK THE CHANGE. Break down the change until it no longer spooks the elephant.
    ... (eg: 5-minute room rescue, procurement reform)
  • GROW YOUR PEOPLE. Cultivate a sen se of identity and instill the grown mindset.
    ... (eg: Brasilata's "inventors" identity, junior-high math kid turnaround)

SHAPE the Path

  • TWEAK THE ENVIRONMENT. When the situation changes, the behavior changes. So change the situation.
    ... (eg: throwing out phone system at Backspace, 1-click ordering, simplifying online time sheet)
  • BUILD HABITS. When behavior is habitual, it's "free" - it doesn't tax the rider. Look for ways to encourage habits.
    ... (eg: setting "action triggers", eating two bowls of soup while dieting, using checklists)
  • RALLY THE HERD. Behavior is contagious. Help it spread.
    ... (eg: "Fataki" in Tanzania, "free spaces" in hospitals, seeding the tip jar)

I will write down some of the most notable parts of the book here...

Summary Notes

Three Surprises About Change

  • Popcorn example (people eat all popcorn, even if huge bucket)

You can see how easy it would be to turn an easy change problem (shrinking people's buckets) into a hard change problem (convincing people to think differently). And that's the 1st surprise about change: What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

For an individual's behavior to change, you've got to influence not only their environment, but their hears and minds. The problem is this: Often the heart and mind disagree.

Conventional wisdom in psychology is that brain has two independent systems at work at all times. First: emotional side (pain and pleasure). Second: rational side (analyzes and looks into the future.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt says our emotional side is the Elephant and our rational side is the Rider. Anytime the six-ton elephant and rider disagree the rider is going to lose. If you're comtemplating change, the elephant is the one who gets things done. You've got to appeal to both.

Self control is an exhaustible resource. Think of the way your mind worked when you're giving negative feedback to an employee, or assembling a new bookshelf or learning a new dance. You are careful with your words or movements. It feels like there's a supervisor on duty. That's self-control too.

Much of our daily behavior is more automated than supervised, and that's a good thing because the supervised behavior is the hard stuff. It's draining.

When people try to change things, they're usually tinkering with behaviors that have become automatic, and changing those behaviors requires careful supervision by the Rider.

Change is hard because people wear themselves out, and that's the 2nd surprise about change: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.

  • Glove example
  • 1% milk example (fantastic!)

The 3rd surprise about change: What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.


Find the Bright Spots

  • Jerry Sternin, Save the Children in Vietnam.
    (bright spot = mum's feeding their kids four meals a day + crustaceans from rice fields -> had same low income as other mum's but less malnutricion)

Bright spots solve the Not Invented Here' problem (since all groups think they are the smartest).

  • Bobby "school stinks".... therapist didn't both digging into Bobby's history because this is TBU (True but Useless).

In Solutions-focussed therapy we can ask the Miracle Question:

"Can I ask you a strange question? Suppose you go to bed tonight and sleep well. Sometimes in the middle of the night, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens and all the troubles that brought you here are resolved. When you wake up in the morning, what's the first small sign you'd see that would make you think: 'Well, something must have happened - the problem is gone'?"

Example: "I'd listen to what my wife was saying".

The miracle question doesn't ask you to describe the miracle itself; it asks you to identify the tangible signs the miracle has happened.

The Exception Question: "When was the last time you saw a little bit of the miracle, even if just a short time?".

It's an ingenious tactic to show the client they are already capable of solving their own problem.

  • Xolair sales - two sales women were selling 20x more than peers (they were showing doctors how to administer drug)

Big problem, small solution.

Interesting: An analysis of the dictionary finds ~558 emotional words.... and found 62% of them were negative, versus 38% positive. Ouch. Bad is stronger than good. When people learn bad stuff about a person, it's stickier than the good stuff. It's called positive-negative asymmetry.

We need to give the Rider a more positive orientation via solutions focus.

Script the Critical Moves

Point to the Destination


Find the Feeling

Shrink the Change

Grow your People


Tweak the Environment

Build Habits

Rally the Heard

Keep the Switch Going