Book Review: Switch


Picture of the cover of "Switch" by Chip Heath and Dan HeathI’ve been reading a lot of history instead of industry books lately. I finally decided to pick up an industry book and grabbed Switch off of my pile. I received a copy of it years ago at some event and had been meaning to read it. Recently, several people have mentioned it on Twitter and I took that as a sign that I should finally read it.

I’m glad that I did.

Written by Chip and Dan Heath, Switch covers the ins-and-outs of change management. Having practiced change management as part of projects for 20 years, I saw a lot of truth in this book. The way the authors break it down into core components to help you identify what you can do to help change people’s behavior is well thought out.

The quick summary: if you work on digital transformation projects or any information project where people have to change their everyday routine, I highly recommend this book. Even if you have done change management in the past, this book will help you take a more structured approach to achieving change.

The Elephant And The Rider

This analogy comes from The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. Chip and Dan describe our rational side as the rider, trying to guide the elephant were we want to go. The elephant represents our emotional side, following our instincts and default behaviors. The rider may want us to head into town but the elephant thinks wading through that river would feel great on a summer day.

When there’s a disagreement, guess which side wins?

And even if your rider manages to win a battle, it drains your energy that you cannot use for other things.

When making a change, you have to appeal to both sides. It may be easier to convince the “rider” with facts but sometimes an emotional appeal will help insure that a change sticks.

A good example they gave was paying down debt. It makes sense to the rider to pay down the high interest loans first. The problem is that after a while, you may owe less but the number of creditors owed is the same. Progress can feel slow to the elephant. However, if you pay off the smallest amount first, you may go from owing 5 different creditors to only owing 4. You can then take the money you gave the now eliminated debt to the next smallest debt.

While it may not make sense rationally, the constant signs of progress of reducing the number of creditors can motivate your elephant. It can keep that effort going after the initial start of the payments.

Don’t Forget The Environment

The authors also talk about shaping the path. With the right path, it is easy for the rider and elephant to proceed to the desired outcome.

I use this approach every day. I love cookies. I have been known to turn them into a single meal when my kids aren’t watching. I don’t mean to do it but it is always just one more cookie. Eventually they are all gone.

Snickerdoodles on a cooling rack in my kitchen

My rider is powerless against the elephant that loves cookies. I may resist for one or two nights but eventually I eat the cookies. That’s when I turned to shaping the path. I stopped buying cookies. It is easy to resist in the store, I avoid the aisle and don’t pick them up. There is no immediate gratification so my elephant is readily guided away from the cookies.  Now I only have to control the elephant when I am in the store. The rest of the time, there are no cookies to march towards.

Mind you this all falls apart when I realize I could just make cookies.

Putting It Together

This all sounds good, but how does this help your everyday? The authors address this by presenting real examples of how people have tackled difficult challenges in changing people’s behaviors and showing how it relates to each of the three components. Additionally, in each chapter, they present a scenario that you can either read through or use as an exercise in how you might better engage the rider, motivate the elephant, or shape the path.

With all of these examples, it was easy for me to think about my past experiences in the context that the authors presented. I could see why my successes worked and it helped me revisit why some past change efforts took more work than they should have.

Read It

There is a reason this book gets a lot of praise. It is useful. If you are in the information governance or enterprise content management (ECM) space, you should give this a read. Change is at the core of almost every project. If you don’t plan from the beginning how you are going to help people adapt to the new world, you are digging yourself a hole.

For those that don’t consider themselves to be in those spaces, I’m sure you’ve been dragged, or have dragged others, into a digital transformation initiative. No matter how you define it, transforming something is change. It may be revolutionary and easy for people to see the benefits. However, the odds are that there are some fringe people on the transformed process that will need some help changing. This book helps you break down different ways to make the change easier.

Many of you have already read this book. What did you think? Did it help you?

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