Switch by Chip & Dan Heath: Notes18 min read

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Switch is about how you can lead and encourage changes of human behavior, both in yourself and in your organization, by focusing on the three forces that influence it: the rider, the elephant and the path.

After Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath tackled the issue of how to change human behavior, an important question, especially for leaders in organizations, but also for individuals, who suffer from their bad habits.

In order to address the problem, they look at three driving forces behind behavior change: the rational side, the emotional side and the environment in which the change is supposed to happen.

You might have heard the analogy of your brain as a rational rider, sitting on top of an emotional, stubborn elephant, trying to direct it, which makes it easier to understand how your brain’s rational and emotional side work together. Originally introduced by Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, the Heath brothers pick it up and use it as the common thread of this book.

Here are 3 ways for you to influence the rider, the elephant and the path they’re on:

  • Focus on one specific, critical aspect of the change, so the rider doesn’t have to decide.
  • Get the elephant moving with a powerful emotion.
  • Make the path of change easy to follow, because human behavior is highly situational.

Ready to tame the elephant and harness the power of habit change? Let’s go!

Lesson 1: Focus all your energy on one specific, critical aspect of the change you want to make, so you don’t have to decide.

The rider of the elephant is your neocortex, the newest, most rational part of your brain. It loves to think, to ponder and to look at all angles of a situation. This is very helpful when analyzing complex problems, but changing your behavior often isn’t one of them.

If you want to eat better, it’d probably easiest to start by having your coffee without sugar. But if your rider hears the vague goal “eat healthier,” it instantly goes into analyzing overdrive, thinking of hundreds of possible options – and ending up paralyzed.

This is just human nature. What we think is a resistance to change is actually just a lack of clarity on what to do next.

In order to avoid this, look at which small moves are the most critical and come up with a set of clear instructions for those. For example, when researches tried to get people from West Virginia to eat better, they told them one simple thing: “Buy 1% milk, instead of whole milk.” This was easy enough to do, and ended up doubling the consumption of 1% milk.

Some more ideas for eating healthy would be:

Eat salad for lunch every weekday.

Only eat out on weekends.

Never drink soda.

Lesson 2: Get your inner elephant going by evoking a powerful emotional response.

With the rider taken care of, now we have to get the elephant moving. However, unlike the rider, the elephant cares little about logical arguments and rational reasoning. It’s a stubborn, emotional creature, and those are best swayed by powerful feelings.

For example, manager Jon Stegner was frustrated with his company’s purchasing process, he found it to be highly inefficient. But to get the board to act fast, he knew he couldn’t throw slides and charts at them, in hopes of a quick decision. Instead, he counted how many different gloves the company ordered and collected one pair of each. He then set up a meeting and piled up a mountain of 424 different pairs of gloves on the conference table, making it clear to every board member within seconds that their purchasing behavior was crazy – and being charged with re-designing it.

When you want to quit smoking, telling yourself you’ll save money and be healthier is a weak argument. But taking a picture of your ugly, yellow teeth and looking at that every day, that’s an entirely different playing field.

Both positive and negative emotions can get the elephant to move. Negative emotions work better with obvious problems, as shock and outrage give us a sense of urgency, like in Stegner’s case. If the problem is more complex and there’s no clear solution, focus on positive emotions, which will broaden your vision and make you more creative in tackling it.

Lesson 3: Make the path of change as easy to follow as possible, because human behavior depends more on the situation than you think.

Lastly, even the best rider-elephant team can have a tough time on an uphill, steep, winding path. The environment in which you’re trying to change matters – more than you think.

One of the biggest cognitive biases is the so-called fundamental attribution error. It says that we overestimate how much people’s innate character traits determine their behavior, as opposed to their environment. The truth is that human behavior is very fluid, and it highly depends on the situation.

Therefore, the easier it is to follow through with your change in any given situation, the more likely you’ll be to pull it off.

For example, in a study students ranked their peers by how generous they were, yielding a group of “saints” and a group of “jerks.” Half of both groups were then sent a vague letter, asking them to “bring food to a popular spot on campus.” As a result, 8% of the saints donated, while none of the jerks did. However, when they sent a very specific letter to the other half of both groups, asking for a can of beans and giving them a map to the spot, 25% of even the jerk group donated – outgunning the saints 3:1 in the vague condition.

This shows that the situational conditions influence our behavior a lot more than our innate tendencies. So if you want to stop having sugar in your coffee, just don’t buy any in the first place.

Wherever you can, design your environment to make it a pleasant, downhill stroll for your rider and elephant.

My personal take-aways

I love that they used one analogy throughout the book, which made it very easy to follow along. Definitely one of the best books out there on behavioral change. Powerful read for managers too!

Switch by Chip & Dan Heath

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The Five Big Ideas

There are three surprises about change.

Change often fails because our emotional side (The Elephant) and our rational side (The Rider) can’t cooperate long enough for the desired change to occur.

Another reason change often fails is because of our surrounding environment. This is known as the “Path.”

So, to change a behavior, you need to direct The Rider, motivate The Elephant and shape The Path

Change isn’t easy, but with the right framework, it becomes easier.

Switch Summary

Chapter 1: Three Surprises About Change

In one study, people with the large buckets ate 53 percent more popcorn than people with the medium size.

There are three surprises about change:

What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.

What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.

For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently.

To change someone’s behavior, you’ve got to change that person’s situation.

The brain has two independent systems at work at all times. First, there’s the emotional side. It’s the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure. Second, there’s the rational side, also known as the reflective or conscious system. It’s the part of you that deliberates and analyzes and looks into the future.

Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider.

Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.

If you want to change things, you’ve got to appeal to both The Rider and The Elephant. The former provides the planning and direction, and the latter provides the energy.

When Rider and Elephant disagree about which way to move, you’ve got a problem.

The authors on why change is hard:

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. The bigger the change you’re suggesting, the more it will sap people’s self-control. And when people exhaust their self-control, what they’re exhausting are the mental muscles needed to think creatively, to focus, to inhibit their impulses, and to persist in the face of frustration or failure. In other words, they’re exhausting precisely the mental muscles needed to make a big change.

The basic three-part framework you need to change behavior:

Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.

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.

Shape the Path. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. The authors 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.

If you can do all three at once, dramatic change can happen even if you don’t have lots of power or resources behind you.

When making a change, don’t say it will be easy, say it will be easier.

Chapter 2: Find the Bright Spots

Bright spots are successful efforts worth emulating.

In tough times, the Rider sees problems everywhere, and “analysis paralysis” often kicks in. The Rider will spin his wheels indefinitely unless he’s given clear direction. That’s why to make progress on a change, you need ways to direct the Rider. Show him where to go, how to act, what destination to pursue.

The Miracle Question: “Suppose that you go to bed tonight and sleep well. Sometime, 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.’?”

The Exception Question: “When was the last time you saw a little bit of the miracle, even just for a short time?”

To find bright spots, ask yourself, “What’s working and how can we do more of it?”

Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades.

In one exhaustive study, a psychologist analyzed 558 emotion words—every one that he could find in the English language—and found that 62 percent of them were negative versus 38 percent positive.

Our Rider has a problem focus when he needs a solution focus.

Chapter 3: Script the Critical Moves

Decisions are the Rider’s turf, and because they require careful supervision and self-control, they tax the Rider’s strength.

The more choices the Rider is offered, the more exhausted the Rider gets.

In one study, shoppers who saw only 6 jams on display are 10 times more likely to buy a jar of jam.

Change brings new choices that create uncertainty.

Ambiguity is exhausting to the Rider because the Rider is tugging on the reins of the Elephant, trying to direct the Elephant down a new path. But when the road is uncertain, the Elephant will insist on taking the default path, the most familiar path, just as the doctors did. Why? Because uncertainty makes the Elephant anxious.

Any successful change requires a translation of ambiguous goals into concrete behaviors. In short, to make a switch, you need to script the critical moves.

To spark movement in a new direction, you need to provide crystal-clear guidance.

You can’t script every move—that would be like trying to foresee the seventeenth move in a chess game. It’s the critical moves that count.

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

If you are leading a change effort, you need to remove the ambiguity from your vision of change.

Until you can ladder your way down from a change idea to a specific behavior, you’re not ready to lead a switch.

To create movement, you’ve got to be specific and be concrete.

Chapter 4: Point to the Destination

When you describe a compelling destination, you’re helping to correct one of the Rider’s great weaknesses—the tendency to get lost in analysis.

In looking for a goal that reaches the Elephant—that hits people in the gut—you can’t bank on SMART goals.

Destination postcards—pictures of a future that hard work can make possible—show the Rider where you’re headed, and they show the Elephant why the journey is worthwhile.

If you’re worried about the possibility of rationalization at home or at work, you need to squeeze out the ambiguity from your goal.

Marry your long-term goal with short-term critical moves.

Back up your destination postcard with a good behavioral script.

The Rider’s strengths are substantial, and his flaws can be mitigated. When you appeal to the Rider inside yourself or inside others you are trying to influence, your game plan should be simple. First, follow the bright spots. As you analyze your situation, you’re sure to find some things that are working better than others. Don’t obsess about the failures. Instead, investigate and clone the successes. Next, give direction to the Rider—both a start and a finish. Send him a destination postcard and script his critical moves.

When you do these things, you’ll prepare the Rider to lead a switch. And you’ll arm him for the ongoing struggles with his reluctant and formidable partner, the Elephant.

Chapter 5: Find the Feeling

In one study, John Kotter and Dan Cohen observed that, in almost all successful change efforts, the sequence of change is not ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE, but rather SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.

The positive illusion is our tendency to believe we’re better than average.

If you need quick and specific action, then negative emotions might help.

To solve bigger, more ambiguous problems, we need to encourage open minds, creativity, and hope.

Chapter 6: Shrink the Change

One way to motivate action is to make people feel as though they’re already closer to the finish line than they might have thought.

If you want a reluctant Elephant to get moving, you need to shrink the change.

Another way to shrink change is to think of small wins—milestones that are within reach.

When you engineer early successes, what you’re really doing is engineering hope. Hope is precious to a change effort. It’s Elephant fuel.

Once people are on the path and making progress, it’s important to make their advances visible.

Solution-focused therapists devised a way of quantifying progress toward the miracle mentioned in Chapter 2. They create a miracle scale ranging from 0 to 10, where 10 is the miracle.

The advantage of scaling the miracle is that it demystifies the journey.

The value of the miracle scale is that it focuses attention on small milestones that are attainable and visible rather than on the eventual destination, which may seem very remote.

When you set small, visible goals, and people achieve them, they start to get it into their heads that they can succeed.

Psychologist Karl Weick, in a paper called “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems,” said, “A small win reduces importance (‘this is no big deal’), reduces demands (‘that’s all that needs to be done’), and raises perceived skill levels (‘I can do at least that’).”

You want to select small wins that have two traits: (1) They’re meaningful. (2) They’re “within immediate reach.”

Chapter 7: Grow Your People

James March, a professor of political science at Stanford University, says that when people make choices, they tend to rely on one of two basic models of decision making: the consequences model or the identity model.

The consequences model assumes that when we have a decision to make, we weigh the costs and benefits of our options and make the choice that maximizes our satisfaction. It’s a rational, analytical approach.

In the identity model of decision making, we essentially ask ourselves three questions when we have a decision to make: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation?

When you think about the people whose behavior needs to change, ask yourself whether they would agree with this statement: “I aspire to be the kind of person who would make this change.” If their answer is yes, that’s an enormous factor in your favor. If their answer is no, then you’ll have to work hard to show them that they should aspire to a different self-image.

How do you keep the Elephant motivated when it faces a long, treacherous road?

You need to create the expectation of failure—not the failure of the mission itself, but failure en route.

If you want to reach your full potential, you need a growth mindset.

“Everything can look like a failure in the middle.”—Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Chapter 8: Tweak the Environment

The fundamental attribution error describes our tendency to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in.

If you want people to change, you can provide clear direction (Rider) or boost their motivation and determination (Elephant). Alternatively, you can simply make the journey easier. Create a steep downhill slope and give them a push. Remove some friction from the trail. Scatter around lots of signs to tell them they’re getting close. In short, you can shape the Path.

Tweaking the environment is about making the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder. It’s that simple.

If you change the path, you’ll change the behavior.

In one hospital, nurses made 250 errors a year when administering medication. To reduce the number of errors, nurses were giving “medication vests” to inform doctors not to disturb them. During the six-month trial period, errors dropped 47 percent from the six months prior to the study.

Anytime a plane is below 10,000 feet—whether on the way up or the way down—no conversation is permitted in the cockpit, except what’s directly relevant for flying. This is known as a “Sterile Cockpit.”

In trying to minimize the risk of bad outcomes, injury-prevention experts often turn to the Haddon Matrix, a simple framework that provides a way to think systematically about accidents by highlighting three key periods of time: pre-event, event, and post-event.

Chapter 9: Build Habits

According to one study of people making changes in their lives, 36 percent of the successful changes were associated with a move to a new location, and only 13 percent of unsuccessful changes involved a move.

A recent meta-study that analyzed 8,155 participants across 85 studies found that the typical person who set an implementation intention did better than 74 percent of people on the same task who didn’t set one.

A good change leader never thinks, “Why are these people acting so badly? They must be bad people.” A change leader thinks, “How can I set up a situation that brings out the good in these people?”

There’s a tool that perfectly combines tweaking the environment and building habits. It’s something that can be added to the environment in order to make the behavior more consistent and habitual. That tool is the humble checklist.

Checklists have three advantages, including:

Educating people about what’s best, showing them the ironclad right way to do something.

Helping people avoid blind spots in a complex environment.

Insuring against overconfidence.

Sam’s Note:

For more on using checklists, read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.

Chapter 10: Rally the Herd

In ambiguous situations—smoke pouring into a room, the apparent sound of a fall—people look to others for cues about how to interpret the event.

If you want to change things, you have to pay close attention to social signals, because they can either guarantee a change effort or doom it.

Chapter 11: Keep the Switch Going

A long journey starts with a single step, but a single step doesn’t guarantee the long journey. How do you keep those steps coming?

The first thing to do is recognize and celebrate that first step.

When you spot movement, you’ve got to reinforce it.

Reinforcement is the secret to getting past the first step of your long journey and on to the second, third, and hundredth steps.

Change isn’t an event; it’s a process.

The mere exposure principle assures us that a change effort that initially feels unwelcome and foreign will gradually be perceived more favorably as people grow accustomed to it.

People don’t like to act in one way and think in another. So once a small step has been taken, and people have begun to act in a new way, it will be increasingly difficult for them to dislike the way they’re acting.

As people begin to act differently, they’ll start to think of themselves differently, and as their identity evolves, it will reinforce the new way of doing things.

Small changes can snowball into big changes.

When change works, it tends to follow a pattern.

Recommended Reading

If you like Switch, you may also enjoy the following books:

Drive by Dan H. Pink

Mindset by Carol Dweck

Start with Why by Simon Sinek

Buy The Book: Switch

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