Switch: How to change things when change is hard. Book Review & notes

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath provides a simple framework with wide application. It took me about 10 hours to read. Chapters are very short and I found it useful to read a bit, reflect, read a bit more etc.

8 August 2023

I’ve seen this book recommended for undertaking organizational change but it can be applied in a variety of settings. I’m usually a bit skeptical of business books framed with analogies because the analogy often breaks down very quickly and the principles often feel like they were framed around an analogy that’s easy to use in story, rather than finding an analogy that adequately explains the principles. I was pleasantly surprised how well Switch used it’s analogies to help readers internalize the lessons.

Switch’s framework puts forward 3 components that need to be in place to make any kind of big change happen, framed as the Rider, the Elephant and the Path. It’s an analogy that works well throughout the book and gives a tangible feeling of how these 3 components interact.

You need to appeal to people’s intellect (framed as Direct the Rider), their emotions (Motivate the Elephant) and augment the environment (Shape the Path).

For each of these there is a balance to strike with how much you can rely on each and how each is best suited for their role in achieving large scale changes.

What I really liked it that the examples, research and anecdotes came from a wide variety of fields and they specifically chose examples that were driven by people who are in typical positions readers are in i.e. little direct influence, few resources and no power to decree change. This is not a book about well-heeled CEOs or rise-n-grind types. It’s regular people pushing a few key levers to make things happen.

What I also quite liked is that the anecdotes and some made-up (but very plausible) examples did not feel contrived. Even the research cited didn’t feel too cherry-picked.

I had quite a lot of highlights which I’ll list out, but some key points that come to mind are:

  • There’s an skewed relationship between the effort needed and change enacted – relatively small interventions can yield big changes.
  • Momentum is key – aim for small wins early on even if these aren’t optimal from an efficiency standpoint. People like to join movements that have momentum.
  • When there looks like a systemic issue with no hope you can often “find the bright spots” where change has happened – investigate and learn from those.

And there’s many more. I had read this book prior to reading Kill it with Fire and way after The Phoenix Project and The Goal, and these all share similar concepts.

Highlighted passages

pg12: Change is hard because people wear themselves out… what looks like laziness is often exhaustion.

pg44: There is a clear asymmetry between the scale of the problem and the scale of the solution. Big problem, small solution.

pg106: Analytics tools work best when “parameters are known, assumptions are minimal, and the future is not fuzzy”. But big changes dont look like that.

OB: The point is that appealing to intellect alone doesn’t work because intellect is an analytical process. This is why engaging people’s emotion is needed.

pg133: ..you need quick wins to get fired up. And getting fired up is super important.

pg156: When you think about people whose behaviour needs to change, ask yourself whether they would agree with this statement: “I aspire to be the kind of person who would make this change”.

OB: Here the authors speak about two main types of models for decision-making. Consequences (an analytical model) or identity (an emotion model). The identity model is very powerful and explains why people vote or decide on things in what (analytically) is against their self interest. Identity is more powerful than consequences.

pg161: Once you start seeing yourself as a “concerned citizen”, you’ll want to keep acting like one.

OB: This is giving examples of techniques where you help people achieve smaller, low effort steps so they can see themselves as agents of the bigger change that require bigger or more consistent steps.

Pg162: You need to create the expectation of failure.

OB: Not all steps change will be easy or work every time and creating the expectation that failure will happen is needed to help people get moving and not lose motivation when failure happens.

pg175: Whereas the Rider needs direction, the Elephant needs motivation. And we’ve seen that motivation comes from feeling – knowledge isn’t enough to motivate change. \

pg197: OB: talking about shaping the environment, consider the three period pre-event, event and post-event. Examples taken from the Haddon Matrix framework which describes this thinking and how to apply it to e.g. reduce car accident injuries.

pg229: In situations where your herd has embraced the right behavior, publicize it.

OB: And they emphasize not to publicize when there is very little uptake, that will hurt your efforts. Rather find the bright spots and highlight those.

pg246: Researchers who study social movements call situations like these “free spaces” – small-scale meetings where reformers can gather and ready themselves for collective action without being observed by members of the dominant group. Free spaces often play a critical role in social change.

pg247: Counterintuitively, you’ve got to let your organization have an identity conflict. For a time at least, you’ve got to permit an “us versus them” struggle to take place.

OB: This was quite interesting.

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