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Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath & Dan Heath - Book Brief

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

Change is hard. We say that a lot. In this Book Brief, we're looking at three techniques to implement change management so it's just a little easier.

Change is hard… unless of course you've chosen to move your cheese, and even then it can still be tough. The pace of change in the workplace is ever increasing. We all need to keep our skills updated, adapt new ways of working, develop relationships with new managers and co-workers and so on. The amount of things that change in our work environment can be overwhelming. That's why as a Talent Development Pro you need to incorporate change management into every product or program that you introduce to your workforce.

Finding a change management strategy that works can also be tough. There are quite a few models out there and lots of great ideas. Check out my blog post on 4 Change Management Hacks if you'd like help honing in on a few of those ideas that will help you incorporate change management into your programs. Another great idea? Reading Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard. In the work that we do in HR, isn't most all change hard? Except raises, 401K matching, days off and leaders that we like. Ok, those aren't hard, but we like them, right? If we didn't like getting a raise and our leader had to work on changing our perspective, that would be hard. After reading Switch, I'm convinced that the Heath Brothers would have a story and lesson to fit the situation.

Switch How to Change when Change is hard Book Brief

Chip Heath & Dan Heath, the authors have a conversational, engaging style that made Switch easy to read and apply. As I was reading through each chapter my mind was applying concepts to the age-old problem of front-line leadership & performance conversations. Change is all about adopting and sticking with new behaviors. Expecting front-line leaders to change ingrained behaviors to host a proactive performance chat with their employees is a high ideal, I know. But I'm determined. The Heath Brothers offered relevant, actionable concepts that I could get my mind around and include in my planning.

The concepts shared in Switch center on two central figures we each host in our psyche: The Elephant and the Rider of the Elephant (p 7-8):

  • The Elephant represents our emotional side that is full of energy and seeks instant gratification

  • The Rider is our rational side that tends to think long-term and likes to plan

Change is hard because it takes a lot of self-control, and it gets tiring keeping our self-control focused and strong (p 12). This tidbit is a perspective I appreciated as I also remember that successful change is all about changing behaviors.

The Heath's lay out three strategies to make change stick:

  1. Direct the Rider

  2. Motivate the Elephant

  3. Shape the Path

Each strategy includes three tactics to engage. This Book Brief highlights one tactic within each strategy.

If you're new to Talent Folks' Book Briefs, they offer talent-development specific application from business, leadership and sundry books. Not a review. Not a synopsis. Three to five bullets that you can apply to your daily Talent Development work.

Direct the Rider - Bright Spots

Bright Spots are the successful efforts that you spot someone doing that are worth emulating (p 28). You know those bright spots when you see them - leaders who are successfully coaching and providing useful performance feedback in a toxic environment. What about the folks who have automated mundane tasks so that they can focus on more value added work? When you're faced with a challenging situation and you ask "What's working and how can we do more of it?," that's the bright-spot philosophy (p 41).

I can think of a couple of Talent Development applications for Bright Spots:

  1. We don't have to stir up a new project to understand why a challenge is happening or spin up a comprehensive development plan for every situation. Sometimes we simply need to ask what's working and how can we replicate it, share the knowledge or spread the behaviors. We don't have time or resources to dig in to every situation that comes our way. Look for the bright spots to point customers toward and help them with a quick plan to spread the know-how.

  2. Identifying a Bright Spot within a group solves the "HR is telling us what to do, therefore I'm skeptical" problem. Bright Spots arise within the best practices of the group - their ideas versus an outsider's idea… their change versus a prescribed change (p 31).

Motivate the Elephant - Shrink the Change

I love the concept of Shrink the Change. The main idea: help people feel closer to the finish line than they thought they were. (p 127)

The Elephant in us (our emotional sides) can be easily demoralized and therefore derailed. Quick wins, a shorter destination and frequent reassurance help us stay on the path to change and make it easier to follow the course (p 129). I have a current example:

We are in a slow process of moving into our new place. While I was at work, my husband did me the favor of unpacking kitchen boxes, as that's not my favorite task. He unloaded all the goods on the counters and table. Every inch is covered, which first makes me wonder if I really need all these kitchen gadgets. For a day or so, I look at it all, turn around and walk away. But it's Saturday and I don't have an excuse to not deal with it, and it sure would be nice to have a place to eat. So, I start small while I'm heating up lunch. Wash just this stack of pans - because a donut pan, mini loaf pan bigger than the state of Rhode Island and three muffin pans are keepers. I finish that stack and move on to the mixing bowls and arranging the knife drawer just so. Now the task isn't quite so daunting and I can see countertop. Tackling just one stack during the time it took to heat up lunch has spurred on the desire to see more free countertop space and is a good example of shrinking the change. Small steps lead to a clean, organized kitchen. The goal is that with micro-changes, we build confidence, our reluctance dwindles and we begin to feel the change (p 148). Uncovering the lovely countertop makes me feel nice about settling in, and I’m looking forward to enjoying a clean kitchen. I am motivated to keep working… right after I finish this post.

Talent Development applications for Shrink the Change are plentiful:

  • Schedule a quick win early in the change journey such as the celebration of an early, pre-determined milestone. Fabricate a milestone in the journey even if not significant. The purpose is to keep the troops rallied.

  • Set small actions that people can do or try daily that build confidence. With a new system implementation you might engineer a fun competition to log in and do a little something each day. You're building confidence in navigating the new system.

  • In Atomic Habits, James Clear encourages us to make small daily tweaks to our habits. Minor tweaks daily add up to big outcomes over all. Read a quick Brief on Atomic Habits.

  • I keep thinking of that big challenge that keeps turning in my mind - front-line leadership performance conversations. One recommendation in Shrink the Change is to look for one small thing to change. Maybe that's asking one question of one employee each day. In my current organization, that's "How's it going?" My thought is that getting Sups to ask just that one question to one different person on their team each day builds a muscle for having conversations - any conversation at all would be a win. If we can get used to that, we can build on the behavior to begin probing into performance.

Shape the Path - Tweak the Environment

The truth behind Tweak the Environment: "What looks like a person problem is often a situation problem" (p 180). Change is hard - we've discussed that already - so let's look for ways to adjust the environment to make the new behaviors we're after easier and the wrong ones harder (p 183). Take Amazon, it's just not hard to learn how to buy stuff on Amazon. You don't need a job aid to learn how to navigate and press "buy." They've made the shopping environment super-intuitive. Let's think like that.

Talent Development application ideas:

  • Maybe I want to increase the number of candidates applying for positions at my organization or the number of employees completing talent profiles for my talent marketplace. Enable a mobile app that makes it easy to collect the most relevant info from them.

  • What if we made it "cool" to earn an internal certification for a leadership development or some other development program? A sticker on a hard hat, a lanyard pin, mention in a company newsletter, badge in the HRIS or handwritten note from the executive team?

  • The authors provide a neat example in the book based on a practice airlines use for pilots during take-off and landing, the "sterile cockpit" rule, where the only conversation allowed is for flying the plane. The example they give is allocated "sterile cockpit" time to IT developers during a stringent development goal. What if we used the same idea for the many meetings that employees attend, taking away from productive time to get things done. Maybe no meeting Fridays or no meetings after 2:00pm. That's a good organizational development intervention if a team is finding they are working too much overtime or aren't meeting deadlines.

Change is hard, and it's imperative that we find ways to support it within the talent and HR programs that we implement - which can also be hard. Make time to check out the Heath Brother's approach. Switch was a quick read, full of informative stories and examples. Chip and Dan also offer support tools for Switch along with their other books at their site:

If you've made headway on directing the Rider, motivating the Elephant or shaping the path, drop us a line. Let's help each other out with ideas that work.


Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. New York: Broadway Books: 2010.

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