Takeaways from “Switch – when change is hard” by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

“Switch” has been one of my favorite books. This book is deeply insightful on why change is hard and provides a very practical framework for driving change.  Got some time to re-read this book and decided to pen down the key takeaways from this book.

Why Change is not easy

Intuitively we all recognize effecting any change is tough.  But why is change hard? Because when you change things, you start by tinkering behaviors in people that have become automatic.  A change would imply people start behaving differently and this is what makes effecting change difficult.

Our brain always runs two independent systems in parallel – The ‘rational side’ and the ‘emotional side’. While the rational side forces us to be analytical and reflective; the emotional side of our brain triggers our instincts. The emotional part also influences our likes and dislikes.  For any change to be successful, the change should appeal to both our rational and emotional sides.   Whenever there is a conflict between the rational side and the emotional side, problems occur.

In the book, the authors use the “Elephant and its Rider” as a metaphor for these two systems of the brain.  The rational reflective side of our brain is the “Rider” and the emotional side is the “Elephant”. While the Rider provides the intellect and planning, the elephant provides the required muscle power and energy.

It is also important to understand that people reaction is based on the situation they are in. The authors identify this as the “Path” on which the elephant treads. Shaping the path increases the chance of success irrespective of what is happening to the Rider and the Elephant.

Framework for Change Management

Usually, changes fail because the Rider cannot keep the elephant motivated long enough on the path towards destination. But when you reflect a bit more about change, you recognize there are three common surprising insights:

  • What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.
  • What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.
  • What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

Given these understandings,  the authors prescribe a three-part framework to achieve successful change transformation.  The fundamental premise of the book is that no change is easy, but can be made easier through a structured framework. The key aspects of the framework are:

  • Direct the Rider – to provide clarity and direction thereby address the rational side of change management.
  • Motivate the Elephant – to minimize exhaustion by recognizing the feelings and emotional needs of everyone involved
  • Shape the Path – to help manage the situation better by reducing friction and by tweaking the operating environment

Have expanded the salient aspects of each part of the framework in the sections below.

Direct the Rider

One of the principal reasons for resistance to change is a lack of clarity.  This first part of the framework focuses on the means to build clarity and a clear direction.  The authors prescribe the following to achieve these:

  • Find the Bright spots – There are always multiple problems that the Rider has to solve along the change journey.  Many times, these can overwhelm the Rider and lead him to analysis-paralysis. A better approach would be to find out what is working and focus the energies around ways to increase aspects that make things work. Identifying the bright spots is an important key to success as it taps into the existing strength, that can be nourished and amplified.
  • Script critical moves – One of the primary responsibilities of the Rider is to “Make Decisions”. Decision-making becomes complicated when the Rider is presented with several choices at each stage of the journey. This can exhaust the Rider and make him incapable of deciding. This leads to ambiguity and uncertainty on the way forward. When this happens, the Rider loses control.  In absence of a clear way forward, the Elephant starts to get anxious and starts retracing back to a path it is familiar with. To avoid this,  the Rider needs to realize that it is impossible to control and script every move. What matters are only the “Critical moves” that set the direction of the journey.
  • Point to the destination – A Rider has many strengths to ensure the success of a change journey. But he also suffers from inadequacies that create self-doubt and force him to get lost in analysis once in a while. Hence developing a clear visualization of the destination and the gains that can b realized by persisting on the path becomes imperative for the Rider.   This not only serves as a guiding North Star but also helps the Rider explain to the Elephant why treading on this path is worthy.

Motivate the Elephant

No change can be sustained for long just by using Force.  Getting alignment and co-operation of all involved is absolutely necessary for ensuring the long term success of any change program. Being empathetic about the feelings and needs of everyone involved is essential for achieving this.  The second part of the framework addresses the emotional side of change management. Tackling emotional aspects would require a leader to:

  • Find the feeling – While Rider can equip himself for success, the main challenge will be his ability to navigate a reluctant and more formidable beast – the Elephant. This can happen only if the Elephant agrees to co-operate with the Rider. The elephant will be more willing if it believes that there is an appreciation for its feelings. The Rider needs to understand that it is a shared journey with the Elephant being as much of an active participant as the Rider. Being available, helping each other, creating an atmosphere of hope, and sharing successes are as essential as formulating a strategy, plan, and structure.  At the core, any change program tries to bring about a behavioral change in the people involved. It is impossible to achieve this without understanding how people feel about the change.
  • Shrink the Change – Generally, we feel more motivated to do something, when we feel we are a lot closer to the finish line. Big bang approaches seldom work. The easier way to achieve a Big Goal is to break it into smaller goals that can be achieved in a short duration. . Usually a sequence of small successful solutions is essential to realize a larger Goal. Success however small it might be is invigorating, creates an environment of hope, and sets the stage for more success.  Shrinking the change also helps in reducing the anxiety and helps the elephant to move forward confidently as it can now feel success at each step.
  • Grow your people – A change journey is like any other quest. Every quest involves failures. There will be always times in the middle – when everything appears to be a failure.  The Elephant by its very nature hates failure.  Hence it is important to ensure that the Elephant stays motivated on this long journey.  Creating an expectation of failure—not the failure of the mission itself, but failure en-route is essential in this regard.  It is also important to inculcate a “Growth Mindset”.  A growth mindset helps everyone involved to take risks, accept intermediate failures as learning opportunities, take feedback, maintain a long-term view, and consistently move towards long term success.

Shape the Path

Usually what we believe as a people problem is a situation problem.  The situation is what the authors describe as “the Path”.  By “Shaping the path” leaders can make the change journey easier.  The third part of the framework focus on these.

  • Tweak the environment – Operating environment plays a significant part in any change journey. Reducing friction points, providing multiple helpful signals to show the right direction, and providing safety nets around the boundaries to enable people to steer back to the path are some of the examples of tweaking the environment to make the journey easier and more pleasant.
  • Build habits – Habits make a person. It is important is to amplify good habits.  This is essential for long term success.  Habits form when behavioral responses become repeatable for a given environment. Change in the environment will force a change in habits. Hence it becomes imperative to create situations that amplify good behavior in the new environment. Over time these behavioral responses become good habits.
  • Rally the herd – When someone isn’t sure of something around them or doesn’t feel comfortable, they tend to look at others for answers. People look for cues from others on how to interpret an event.  Hence to navigate a change journey, it is important to be aware of the surrounding social signals and develop an awareness of what others are doing in a particular situation.

Conclusion and Way forward

All great journeys start with a single step. But the converse is not true. It is very important to ensure that after every step, the next step is taken. Celebrating the first step and reinforcing every movement becomes essential to keep the momentum alive. It is also important to recognize that change is not an event but a continuous process. People gradually start growing favorable to change and to adopt new ways. As they do this, over time, they act and start thinking differently. There is always a pattern around change adoption.

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