I am fascinated by the topic of change. I’ve previously blogged about the work of Robert Evans on change in schools. I am pleased to be able to recommend another book in this area: Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. (Amazon citation). The Heath brothers are professors at Stanford and Duke respectively, and co-authored an earlier work, Made to Stick.
The authors use a helpful metaphor of the change process to simply illustrate the complex issues underlying change:
- a rider on
- an elephant, going down a
The Rider, the Elephant, and the Path will be used throughout the book to great effect. The metaphor can be used as shorthand when discussing change issue with others who are familiar with their model.
The Rider can be described as our rational selves, whereas the Elephant is emotionally oriented. In the case of change, the Rider can suffer analysis paralysis, and the Elephant can be afraid of change. Conversely, the Rider can see the need for change, providing planning and direction, and the Elephant can brings its enormous strength and energy to the project. As the Heaths say “If you want to change things, you have to appeal to both.” Of course, when the Rider wants to go one way and the Elephant another, you have a problem. “The Rider can get his way temporarily—he can tug on the reins hard enough to get the Elephant to submit… But the Rider can’t win a tug-of-war with a huge animal for long.” Sound familiar?
One of the things I like about the message of this book is its optimism. Whereas Evans can leave a reader feeling depressed about the prospects of meaningful change in schools, the Heaths provide me with a sense of hope and alternatives. Early in the book they talk about a radical change that occurs in many people’s lives that is often welcomed—even longed for—having children! If you are a parent you know how life-changing having a child is. The gentle warnings from friends and family about “how your life will never be the same” are absolutely true, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Nevertheless, change can be hard, not “because people are lazy or resistant.… Change is hard because people wear themselves out.… What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.” And, the Heaths state, “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.”
The core of their book can be summarized as follows:
- Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.
- Motivate the Elephant. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.
- Shape the Path. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.
In their chapter, “Find the Bright Spots,” they describe tactics for helping both the Rider and the Elephant understand what’s needed and the inspiration to do it. They describe how the “paradox of choice” can paralyze certain Riders: with too many choices, they are more likely to take the path more taken due to its familiarity. “Destination Postcards”— vivid and compelling portraits of where the organization wants to go—can be created to answer “where are we headed.”
Many people may consider schools to be passion-less places, steeped in the “same-ol, same-ol.” I don’t believe it. The teachers I work with are passionate about students and education. The challenge is to “find the feeling” that will motivate the Elephant. And when the problems are particularly hard, like all important problems in education are, “we need to encourage open minds, creativity, and hope.” The Heaths provide a number of suggestions in this sphere, outlined in the chapters “Shrink the Change” and “Grow Your People.”
A skilled, clear-headed Rider and and strong, determined and impassioned Elephant are two-thirds of the change formula. The final part is the path, or the environment in which change is to take place. “Tweaking” the environment can make the journey easier, the obstacles easier for the Rider to anticipate and avoid. Similarly, “building habits,” habits of mind, attitudes (habitudes), are often simple, yet powerful mechanisms for creating a more navigable path. Even the lowly checklist has its place.
A wonderful plus to this book, and the Heath’s other work, is the rich collection of resources they have made available for free on their website. This really allows for a continuing conversati0n and deeper dive following the book. Readers may even find this to be a great way to get a sense of the duo’s writing style and find it a great introductory activity, or a summary to be used in discussing their concepts with others.