Changing things when change is hard: book review of “Switch”

Charlene PhippsManaging ChangeLeave a Comment


In Switch, a powerful book on change, authors Chip and Dan Heath illustrate that change of any kind, from organizational improvement to personal growth, is an emotional¬†journey that is frequently at odds with rational intentions and plans. Switch offers compelling and useful principles of change that blend emotional and rational approaches to “change things when change is hard.”

The emotional and rational sides of change

The authors of Switch equate human emotion and rationality to the mythic image of an Elephant and its Rider. They remind us that we all know the Elephant. When change threatens to challenge our known territory and upset our familiar ways of doing things in organizations, our elephant-sized emotions may cause us to rear up with fear or dig in and refuse to budge. Our emotional side can also provide powerful inspiration to accomplish something we believe in, even when the odds are against us.

The Elephant Rider, on the other hand, is like our rational self who is in control of our emotions (or believes so) and has a logical plan to reach a destination. While our ability for rational thinking can provide needed clarity and direction, a purely rational plan for change can be an exhausting and unimaginative task master.

Change can be hard when the rational and emotional sides are at odds. Lucky for us, Dan and Chip Heath provide specific steps and sage advice for using a three-part change framework to successfully “switch” to new ways of doing things:


Switch emphasizes that many organizational change efforts fail because they neglect the emotional part of change. The solution for creating momentum in the midst of an unknown and sometimes fearful future is to help people find the motivating feeling associated with the change. The feeling might be the optimism associated with a glimpse of a hopeful future or a disturbing look at a very real problem. Rather than starting the change initiative with analysis and thinking, they recommend beginning with “seeing and feeling” by putting people directly in touch with stories and experiences that give them a glimpse of how the change can be meaningful and important to their lives and work.

Organizational change almost always requires individual growth and learning such as new skills, different ways of doing things and relating with customers and colleagues in different ways. The authors point out that a change initiative offers the opportunity to “grow” people by encouraging their pride in learning and doing something well. They suggest using “appreciative inquiry” to find out and highlight what’s working for people and what they are proud of. For example, when nurses in one hospital were recognized for their compassionate care and encouraged to mentor new people, turnover in nursing positions decreased by 30%. The bottom line, the authors say, is that change can be more successful when positive recognition is given to people’s growth in knowledge and skills rather than focusing on their deficits.

Switch highlights the importance of making the change manageable by helping people realize they are on the right path and by making their successes visible. The authors offer a great method for tracking success called the “miracle scale” in which people are asked to imagine waking up one morning and miraculously experiencing the tangible results and feelings of the desired change. Throughout the change process they are asked to rate themselves on a scale of 0-10 to indicate how close they are to the “miracle.” In this way, the smallest progress can seem significant; even a rating of 2 means that someone sees themselves as 20% there, increasing confidence and giving cause to celebrate!


While emotion is a powerful motivator for change, the authors warn that the lack of a rational plan can leave impassioned change efforts without direction and doomed to failure. To be effective, the rational plan needs to point clearly to the destination by providing a tangible vision of what will be when the change is complete. The authors share the idea of a “destination postcard,” a message from those in the future who have reached the end of the journey and are writing a postcard in which they share what the future is like to those who will follow. This is not an ordinary post card; it must describe a “gut smacking goal” that clearly shows people where the change is headed and paints a picture of what the journey will accomplish and why it is worthwhile.

A powerful way to show the rational side of people that the change is worthwhile is to “focus on the bright spots.” In contrast with dwelling on the dark side of change like complaints and what’s not working, the bright spots give tangible evidence that the change is possible. According to the authors, one of the most powerful principles for successful change is persistence in asking, “What’s working and how can we do more of it?”

What looks like resistance to change may actually be confusion and exhaustion. Chip and Dan tell us that change leaders can help people overcome inertia by providing “crystal clear guidance” for the change. This means going beyond a big picture vision to translate ambiguous goals into concrete behaviors.


Change efforts often place importance on having a plan at the beginning and goals for the ending. The wisdom from Switch is that the change projects that are most successful emphasize keeping people engaged during the middle transition phase, which the authors refer to as “the path.” They say that once people are motivated, the way to keep the change going is to help them remove the real barriers they experience along the journey. Sometimes people need more specific directions, additional training or a process improvement. This requires that change leaders observe and ask questions to find what’s helping and hindering then help to shape the path to make the right things easier. For example, when a manager learned that employees were stalling to do their time sheets on line rather than on paper, he began to investigate why. What he found was an annoying “wizard” on the program that wasted time and frustrated people. Within a few weeks after removing the wizard, everyone was using the online time sheet.

Even when the barriers are removed from the change path, people eventually have to come face to face with developing the new habits and behaviors required to do things differently. Dan and Chip suggest a powerful habit-building technique they learned from psychologist, Peter Gollwitzer. It entails setting “action triggers,” cues in the environment that signal people to do things they know they need to do. The trigger is simply something like a common event or signal in your environment that you choose to remind yourself to do something important. For example, team members who knew that a process debrief after every meeting would increase their effectiveness, wrote the word “debrief” at the end of every agenda and hung a debrief sign in their meeting room. This may seem like a simplistic method, but in a study of 8,155 participants, those who set an action trigger did 74% better on the same task than people who didn’t (p212). Making change easier may mean offering tangible techniques like this one for developing new habits.

Dan and Chip Heath’s engaging writing and great examples make change appear easy, but they are quick to advise that switching from one way of doing things to another is usually hard. Like settling into to a bumpy ride, change requires that we loosen up, be attuned to the challenges and opportunities on the journey and stay on course. This book is a great read, and with its imaginative metaphor of the Elephant and the Rider, offers seriously effective strategies for successful change.


Charlene PhippsChanging things when change is hard: book review of “Switch”

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