Switch or How to ride an elephant

The Elephant Man...Chip and Dan Heath's new book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, has been making the rounds of my networks.  And now it sits next to me with lots of dog-eared paged and underlinings.

The book is about making change happen in organizations: changes that organizations typically find difficult to do.  It is peppered with familiar examples which the Heaths have used previously to show how people have made change work in unusual ways.  The central metaphor in the book is that making change happen is like dealing with a Rider guiding an Elephant down a Path.

The rider is the intellect and the analyzer.  To guide the Rider, you need to provide evidence and maps and pictures.  And while information and facts are sometimes useful in setting the stage, these things are often "true but useless" in effecting the desired change.  And for the analytical Rider, this information often derails them.  One element in this section is the idea of "postcard of the future" as one example.  This connects directly to one of my favorite thinking questions, "What does good look like?"  Asking that question or describing what we believe good looks like helps people start seeing the change. 

There are a number of other specifics around appealing to the inner Rider to help changes happen.  But these only goes so far when an 80 kg rider is trying to direct something that is 80-100 times heavier.  You also need to give the elephant impetus to make the change.  And it isn't going to be something that looks logical.  The suggestions might sound strange or illogical, but put in the context of the studies that the authors review, it becomes obvious that we have very strong connections into things that don't appear logical on the surface.  And those deep connections need to be addressed to affect large changes in behavior.  The Heath's talk about this as Motivating the Elephant. 

One of these motivation topics has to do with making the change seem attainable ("shrink the change").  This might be "inch pebbles" (instead of milestones) or simple confirmations that "we've made it" partway or other small signs of progress.  After all, if change is a process, then there must be some first steps.  I happened to come across Chris Brogan's post from last year on Tiny Revolutions that supports the same idea.  "Every step towards success requires a tiny revolution."  Another angle on this process idea is that change isn't always an upward journey.  There will be setbacks, slowdowns, reversals.  Enthusiasm-curveIn Switch the Heath's talk about IDEO's Project Mood Chart (which I'd love to see a picture of), but we've used something similar in our consulting practice: The enthusiasm grows at the beginning, particularly with early wins or excitement about the possibility.  Then there is an enthusiasm dip (or trench) because the change isn't as easy as expected or the real work begins.  And this is where the true practitioner comes to the fore.  Give up and nothing will happen, but re-invigorate people and get to the next win and things can turn around and move to even greater heights.  And this cycle will continue, ideally going generally upwards.  This image is one example of an enthusiasm curve found via the Kanban Blog, though it makes the second dip look really bad.

The third element in Switch is to Shape the Path - make it easy for the Rider and Elephant to set their feet on the new path.  I enjoyed the counter-intuitive suggestions and recommendations here, such as simple environmental changes creating new behaviors.  I particularly like the discussion of the Fundamental Attribution Error: assuming people are "unwilling to change" rather than looking at other factors as blocking them from being able to change.  Policies and goals and measures come to mind, as well as simple things like turning your desk a different direction.  As I read the book and as I thought about my own work, I had the strong sense that the Path is primarily connected to helping the Elephant ease their way to a different set of behaviors.  But there are elements of the Rider in these suggestions too. 

The claim in the book is that change efforts have to address all of these elements to some degree, and they use a lot of interesting examples.  But what the Heath brothers don't do is provide guidance on how to diagnose your situation.  Do I need to focus on the Elephant or the Rider or the Path?  Switch is like a high level description of the concept, but we still need a textbook that walks through more details around diagnosing the situation, particularly as part of building the change.  A "textbook" would help change agents plan from the outset so that they don't miss out on their big chance to make change very effective.  Of course, a textbook is probably something that a Rider would want.  In a partial answer to this, there is a website with more resources and audio recordings aimed at specific audiences, HeathBrothers.com.

Another element that seemed to stand out in the book was that the change agents were individuals in large organizations - often outsiders.  It would be nice to see some anecdotes (and guidance) for teams of people who are expected to lead change efforts within organizations.  Extending some of the examples in the book with discussion of how the primary agent enlisted her team to make things happen.  What was the process that they went through to get there?  Were there failures or major revisions to the project mid-stream that required a serious re-evaluation of the plan to that point?

Reflecting on my own consulting practice, issues of change management come up frequently.  This is why I enjoy learning about additional research in this area.  Switch makes it even more obvious that operating from a purely logical / analytical perspective only gets you so far.  It helps people understand the problem and where the organization should go.  But analysis and logic does little to motivate people do actually want to change and understand what to change to.  To counter this, a lot of attempts are made to connect to the reality of life for our clients through simulations and games and reality-facing observations of the system. 

Theory of Constraints in particular has been criticized has too heavily focused on the logical thinking processes - this places emphasis on The Rider.  We (the consultants and experts) already know the path that an organization should follow, so it is much more difficult for us to see that people are struggling with their own elephants.  That said, there are techniques within the TOC community for watching out for comments and behaviors that indicate that people don't agree with the logic or understand what they need to do.  Looking at the resulting artifacts, it all feels very dry and unemotional.  It's the work that goes into uncovering struggles and barriers that helps with the emotional connection.

If you have any connection to making change happen - either as an external or internal agent - Switch will make you take stock of how you are working and the assumptions you have made.  It may even inspire you to consider ways to improve the efforts you are making now.  I know it is helping me think of these things anew.

Special thanks to Tammy Green for talking through some of these points with me.  We both read the book at the same time, and she is another Learning and Organizational Change friend, so it made sense to ask about her views.

[Photo: "The Elephant Man..." by Chernobyl Bob]

1 Comment(s)

Jack Vinson Author Profile Page said:

I just came across the Duct Tape Marketing podcast interview with Chip Heath, if you are interested. It's about 20 minutes and covers some of the stories and reasoning behind writing the book - how it spawned out of their writing Made to Stick.

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