Book Review: “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard”

When Save the Children campaigner Jerry Sternin arrived in Vietnam in 1990, he was tasked with reducing child malnutrition. The foreign minister told him, “You have six months to make a difference.” It was made clear to him that he would not receive much government cooperation.

The conventional view was that child malnutrition was caused by poverty, poor sanitation, lack of clean water and any number of other systemic problems. All of this was “true but useless” (TBU). There was nothing that Save the Children could do about those systemic problems in just six months.

With virtually no money to spend, Save the Children couldn’t wait for poverty to end, drinking water to be purified and for sanitation systems to be built. “Millions of kids can’t wait for those issues to be addressed,” Sternin said.

Instead, Sternin focused on a few villages. He asked assistance from village mothers to find a way to nourish their children better. As a first step, they agreed to weigh their children. Sternin then looked over the results. He found that although most children were malnourished, there were some that were getting enough to eat.

The mothers of these children were doing something that the other mothers weren’t. These mothers fed their children four times a day – instead of the usual two times at morning and night – although the total amount of food was the same. This meant their children were better able to digest the smaller portions they were eating. The mothers also fed their children something slightly different. They added shrimp and crabs to the rice stew that they normally ate, as well as green sweet potatoes (something normally considered low-class). This meant that their children were getting more nutrients.

If some kids were healthy despite their disadvantages, then it was possible for these poverty-stricken villages to have well-nourished children; malnourishment was not inevitable.

Sternin got all the village’s mothers together and encouraged the mothers of the nourished children to share their stories, their recipes and their successes. Pretty soon, all the mothers adopted these new practices and before long, Sternin got them talking to mothers at other villages nearby. The villagers had the solution to the malnourishment of their children all along; it was a native solution. Sternin didn’t know anything about green sweet potatoes or family dinner habits.

Rather than focusing on the impossible root-causes of malnourishment in children, Sternin and Save the Children focused on those success cases and tried to duplicate them.

Switch - How to change things when change is hard by Chip and Dan Heath

Book Review: Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard

Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath is a handbook on succeeding on behaviour change programs. The story above, summarised from the book, emphasises one of the main lessons that Switch teaches: “Follow the Bright Spots“. The Heath brothers argue that if you want to encourage behaviour change, you shouldn’t go after difficult or negative behaviours. Instead, investigate what is working and duplicate it.

Key to this book is its primary metaphor. Based on the symbolism of Plato – “that in our heads we have a rational charioteer who has to rein in an unruly horse that ‘barley yields to horsewhip and goad combined’” – the Heath Brothers adopt Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of an elephant and its rider:

“Our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.”

When change efforts fail, “its usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs.” To complete the analogy, they include the metaphor of the Path they Rider and Elephant are travelling along. The Path represents the technical, logistical elements of behaviour change, such as effective technology or new work procedures.

While the metaphor, which is used constantly throughout Switch, is somewhat hackneyed, it is also useful as a shorthand. After a few chapters, you get used to the Heath Brothers referring to the Rider or the Elephant doing this or that.

Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard sets out three main pathways to succeeding in change, with clear steps along each.

Here’s the structure of the book:

Direct the Rider: Find the bright spots; Script the critical moves; Point to the destination

Motivate the Elephant: Find the feeling; Shrink the Change; Grow your people

Shape the Path: Tweak the environment; Build habits; Rally the herd

To succeed in change, you need to Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant and Shape the Path. Each step has a story to illustrate successes and illustrate the behaviour the Heaths are promoting. Many of the stories are interesting and engaging. They range across time and geography, from the 1960s-1980s to more recent times, from Brazil to Canada and the US. Some of them I have read before in other contexts (including sustainability-based behaviour change), but others are new to me.

They range from businesses changing their structures to principals turning around “trouble” schools, government agencies charities and environmental groups. The diversity of stories is refreshing, and makes this book something more than just the run-of-the-mill corporate change book.

One of the stories that stuck with me was about a wild-life conservation program from the 1980s to save a rare and endangered parrot. Based in St Lucia, in the West Indies, the parrot was feared to become extinct by 2000. A college student, Paul Butler, who had studied the bird, was tasked with running a campaign to save the parrot. He proposed three strategies: 1) dramatically increase the penalties for capturing the parrot; 2) establish a parrot sanctuary in the forestry reserve; and 3) raise money for operating “rain forest tours” with the parrot as the star attraction.

However, none of these things in themselves would save the parrot, and the Conservation Department didn’t really have the authority or money to do any of these things. So, Butler started a public awareness campaign to convince St Lucians that the parrot was theirs; that “they were the kind of people who protected their own.” He hosted parrot puppet shows, convinced local hotels to print bumper stickers, dressed up volunteers in parrot costumes and asked parish ministers to cite pro-conservation verses during sermons. Over time, public support grew for saving the parrot, and the Government introduced Butler’s recommendations.

Eventually, not only was the St Lucia Parrot saved, but Butler’s “Pride campaign” was replicated all around the world. The Heath Brothers use this as an example of how to motivate people to make a change – by “growing the people”. When you build people up – in this case through pride – they develop the strength to act.

What is good about Switch, is that although the stories are told in an entertaining, engaging manner, they are also based solidly on good research. The St Lucia parrot pride campaign exemplifies Stanford University research on decision making: the consequences model and the identity model.

This is particularly interesting in my view – especially for progressive organisations.

The consequences model is familiar to students of economics. It assumes that when we have a decision to make, we weigh the costs and benefits of our options and make the choice that maximises our satisfaction. It’s a rational, analytical approach. This is the approach that Paul Butler knew would fail with St. Lucians, because there simply wasn’t a strong cost/benefit case for the parrot.

In the identity model of decision making, we essentially ask ourselves three questions when we have a decision to make: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? … The identity model explains the way most people vote, which contradicts our notion of the “self-interested voter.” …

Because identities are central to the way people make decisions, any change effort that violates someone’s identity is likely doomed to failure.

This same lesson is further expanded upon by a classic 1960s study cited by the Heath Brothers. It’s one that I’ve come across when I did some Community Based Social Marketing training early in 2010. Psychologists from Stanford University asked researchers go door to door asking home owners to put a billboard reading “Drive Carefully” in their lawns. The owners were shown photos of what the billboards would look like – it was a real eyesore. Unsurprisingly, 83 percent of those asked declined. At the same time, the researchers in another neighbourhood went door to door asking homeowners to put a small “Be a Safe Driver” sign half the size of the postcard in their window or car. Two weeks later, the researchers went back and asked those who’d said yes to the sign to put the billboard in their yard. 76 percent accepted it!

This strategy was called the “foot in the door” technique. Accepting a tiny change dramatically increased the likelihood that a larger, more significant change would be accepted. Interestingly, even if the first ask was different to the subsequent ask, the rate of acceptance was three times the acceptance of someone who was just asked the large change up front.

The psychologists, Freedman and Fraser, wrote:

Once [the home owner] has agreed to the request, his attitude may change, he may become, in his own eyes, the kind of person who does this sort of thing, who agrees to requests made by strangers, who takes action on things he believes in, who cooperates with good causes. [My emphasis.]

These stories – and the research behind them – show that people are receptive to taking on new identities – and that these can lead to positive change.

This is a great read – although it really is constitutes a “weekend book”. I thoroughly enjoyed working my way through. Possibly my only gripe is that the last section – “Shape the Path” – gets a bit trite. It is definitely the weakest section. I also get the feeling that the Heath Brothers have basically repacked a standard textbook on change management using the ideas in their previous book, Made to Stick. It is “simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and a story” – the ingredients for making ideas unforgettable.

Switch is a book that should be read by leaders of progressive organisations. For organisations wanting to facilitate behaviour change, it is filled with great ideas and though provoking anecdotes. It’s engaging, well written, funny in parts and insightful.

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