20 April 2011

Switch: How to change things when change is hard

Recently, Ruth Levine at USAID told me to read Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, and I usually do what Ruth says. I’m glad I read it. It lays out a simple model of change.

The book argues that most people think change (at the individual, organisational and societal levels) happens in this order: ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE.

This model works well where “parameters are known, assumptions are minimal and the future is not fuzzy”. This model may serve well if you want to shave off 5 minutes from your daily commute, but not if you want to understand changes where parameters are not known and the future is fuzzy. In development this is the kind of change we deal with 99.9% of the time. In this world, they argue that change mode is: SEE-FEEL-CHANGE. Evidence makes you feel something, and it hits you at the emotional level.

How to influence this model of change? Think of a rider, an elephant and a path.

The rider is our rational side. The elephant is our emotional side. The rider has the reins and seems to be in control, but is in fact perched precariously on top of the elephant and when the two disagrees, the elephant will win. The rider has strengths (long term thinking, going beyond the emotion) but also weaknesses (overanalysing and over-thinking). The elephant too has strengths (energy when roused, passion, drive) and weaknesses (lazy, looking for the quick payoff over the long term gains). The path is the situation, a situation that can be shaped to make change more or less likely, no matter what the rider and the elephant think.

The keys are to direct the rider, motivate the elephant and shape the path.

Directing the rider is about “finding the bright spots”, the flashes of successes that show others that things can success (e.g. the nutrition clinic that succeeds where others using the same basic model, fail—what epidemiologists call positive deviance), about having actionable goals (e.g. “buy 1% milk” vs “eat a healthy diet”), and describe a compelling change (e.g. a breast cancer clinic where all the specialists are under one roof).

Motivating the elephant is about finding the feeling (e.g. piling all the 424 different kinds of work gloves bought by a large manufacturing company in front of its managers to convince them to rationalise purchasing); shrinking the change (i.e. generating small wins that generate momentum because they bestow hope); and grow your people (e.g. the high school teacher who changed expectations of her students by switching from a grading system of A-D, F to A-C and NY, where NY =not yet).

Shaping the path is about tweaking the environment (e.g. shrinking your plates if you want to eat less or locking students out of a class if they are late); building habits (e.g. of brevity by having stand up meetings); and rallying the herd (e.g. creating free spaces where reformers can ready themselves for collective action without being observed by the dominant group). The Fundamental Attribution Error—our deep-seated tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behaviour—is what we are trying to overcome here: the notion that people behave the way they do only because of the way they are rather than the situation they are in.

Of the people instigating the changes highlighted in the book, few are CEOS. They were not powerful or in charge of budgets and policies, but were people who saw that things could be better and persevered and succeeded.

I liked the authors’ previous book “Made to Stick” about communicating messages and knowledge, and this one is nearly as good. For those of you who are a bit allergic to American optimism (I'm not one of them) the tone may annoy you a little, and for those of you who study how change happens, the book (a quick 300 pages) may be too superficial, but as someone who regularly struggles with these issues, I found it thought provoking. You can find out more at www.switchthebook.com/resources

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