Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Chip Heath & Dan Heath

320 pages, Broadway Business, 2010

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In a world that is becoming increasingly complex, it was a welcome beacon to read the title of Chip and Dan Heath’s new book: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. With great anticipation I turned to the introduction, where the authors promised to teach me how to change things at the individual, organizational, and societal level.

The book’s premise is straightforward—successful change occurs when people change their behavior. A person’s behavior is driven by three factors: his logic and rationality (what the authors call the “Rider”), his emotions (the “Elephant”), and his environment (the “Path”). The best way to create change, say the authors, is to “Direct the Rider,” “Motivate the Elephant,” and “Shape the Path.”

Most of the book is divided into three sections, each exploring one of these principles. Although the introduction provides the logic behind the principles, I sometimes found it difficult to bring them together into a coherent whole. For example, I found the second principle of change, Motivating the Elephant, insightful, but felt the need to return to the first section on the importance of Directing the Rider so that I could get a better perspective on the dynamic relationship between the two principles. Once I understood where the Rider was taking the willing Elephant, I found that unless I also focused on the barriers in the environment—the Path—neither the Rider nor the Elephant would see the change happen. Is it any wonder that most change efforts fail to deliver their full value?

After having gained an understanding of the three principles of change and seeing that there were only a few pages left in the book, I thought I was going to read a concluding chapter that would tie the thesis into a neat knot. Instead, I found myself reviewing 11 common problems people face when driving for change with advice on how to overcome them. Although this last chapter provides several insightful suggestions, I was disturbed that the authors chose not to bring together what is a very creative and insightful perspective on change.

So what can a reader take away from Switch? First, the book presents a number of interesting stories that clearly demonstrate that successful change requires us to look for new behaviors. In addition, we are shown that if change is to succeed, logic, emotion, and the environment need to be properly balanced in order to get stakeholders to exhibit the right behavior. This, as the authors point out in countless stories, is true regardless of whether the change occurs in the public, private, or educational sector. The final takeaway, which is shared throughout the book, is the dynamic nature of change.

There are a few things I would have liked to have seen more of in the book. First, although the “Clinics” (short case study exercises) in each of the three sections were a great idea, they lacked the depth and breadth needed to make them truly memorable. I would also have liked the authors to provide more direction on how to use several of the techniques (such as Solution-Focused Therapy) when working through a change project. Last, it would have been helpful if the authors had developed a few practical tools or templates that could be used when undertaking a change project.

Overall, the authors have done a good job of examining the well-trod subject of change from a new vantage point. Despite the book’s shortcomings, I recommend that Switch be on the reading list for anyone interested in learning more about change leadership.

Dan S. Cohen is a principal at Deloitte Consulting, where he focuses on large-scale organizational transformation. He is the coauthor (along with John P. Kotter) of the book The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations