If you follow the bestseller lists, you don’t need me to tell you about the new book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard,” by Chip & Dan Heath, the brothers who also wrote “Made to Stick” a couple of years ago.
I was not an unalloyed fan of their prior work, and so my expectations for “Switch” were muted. But very soon into the book, I realized that the Heaths’ approach – a wide survey of academic literature, highly memorable and pithy imperatives as an organizing principle (”Direct the Rider,” “Motivate the Elephant,” “Shape the Path”), and loads and loads of well-told stories – worked perfectly for the subject matter: the dry and confounding topic of change management.
The core of the book is a powerful set of metaphors coined by Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia. People’s minds are composed of a Rider (the rational brain, smart but reliant on others to get things done) and an Elephant (the emotional side, not particularly bright but powerful). The Heaths add a Path – the way people need to head to create change. Change requires work from the Rider and the Elephant working in tandem. Effecting change therefore means appealing to the Rider, incenting the Elephant, and creating a Path that minimizes the work those other two have to do.
The metaphor works, and unifies the arguments in the book over more than 250 pages. In addition, the Heaths cite research from many scholars in the field, including John Kotter, Amy Edmondson and Carol Dweck, whose work I’ve touched on in other posts. Finally, the narratives are highly relevant and memorable: I’ve already told several people about the Save the Children staffer who with virtually no resources figured out a way to help Vietnamese mothers reduce malnutrition in their children.
So, I give “Switch” an unqualified endorsement. It’s the business book of the year so far.
It helped, of course, that I started reading “Switch” at the exact right moment: as I began a project to help a company convert lessons from its customer-service experience into meaningful and sustained improvement. But in the business world, these moments recur all the time. We always need to change, and finding useful, applicable methods that don’t require you to be CEO or have a multi-million dollar budget to do it will always be needed.