I’m just finishing “Switch: How to change things when change is hard” by Chip and Dan Heath.  As I’m sure everyone who knows me knows, Chip & Dan Heath wrote one of my all time favorite “business” books, “Made to Stick” which talks about how to express ideas so they’re memorable and make an impact.  When I found out they had a new book coming out, I immediately placed a pre-order with Amazon.  Shortly before the release, when I got an email from one of their assistants asking me if I’d like a copy sent to me, I said “Of course!”  I was flattered that they knew I was a fan of their work and reached out, and I was excited to be able to read the new book.

I’ve ended up with two copies of Switch now (my pre-order and the promotional copy) and I am thrilled to have two, since it’s a book my husband is now starting as well, and this will eliminate any book battles at bed time, akin to our competition to read the last Harry Potter, when the first one to bed got to read the book and the other had to wait until the next night for a crack at it.

I love books that seem to get to the fundamental nature of problems and conflict, boiling things down into their essence and parts, so you have a new lens or template through which to view the world.  Made to Stick did this very well, condensing disparate parts and pieces of what makes stories, ideas, and messages of any sort memorable into a template of sort that helps me every day when I look at how to present ideas to others in a compelling way.

Switch takes on the huge problem of why change seems so almost physically painful, whether that change is personal or professional.  When we look at a big problem, like education or healthcare, it can seem impossible to tackle.  The problem seems too big.  There seems to be no good place to dig in and start making a change, and there seems to be too many external restraints that need to be overcome to make the problem seem remotely doable.  It may be written off as a “cultural problem” or a “system”problem or even a “few bad apples” problem, but in the end, a few small changes can often lead to cascading change, much like Malcolm Gladwell talked about in The Tipping Point.

Switch starts out with an analogy that change can be like a rider on an elephant on a path.  The rider is analytical by nature, the elephant is big and emotional, and the path is the things that need to be done to move forward to get to the destination that we all aspire to by creating change.  While I was initially not in love with this analogy, but it works in the book as a tool to frame out the different parts of creating successful change or innovation in any group or situation.

For change to be successful, all three of these components need to work together- the facts and numbers analytical portion must be happy; the moody and resistant portion of the group must be reasonably happy and convinced that they’ll give change a try, and the pathway needs to be clear enough and short enough to motivate the riders and elephants to choose it as an option or alternative to the status quo.

Let’s take a personal situation and apply this formula. (It’s easier than solving healthcare in a blog post.)

I just walk/ran my second half marathon.  For someone who just really started a concerted fitness program seven months ago, this would have seemed like a silly and crazy thing to even consider a year ago.  My elephant knew I needed to get in shape and get healthier, but there always seemed to be a reasonable excuse to avoid the gym- the pathway to health and fitness seemed foggy and the goal was noble but not specific and defined.  My “rider” knew what I needed to do, but we needed to construct a path to get there.

One of the steps was finding a personal trainer.  This way, I get to work out privately, and I’m coached so I pushed myself more than I would on my own- I have someone to impress.  I have an appointment to keep, and I’m not discouraged by the extra-fit others that are already at my destination, but just show me how much farther I have to go, causing a distraction from the smaller steps I need to take every day.

Another huge step was to find big external goals to work for, like these half-marathon events.  The distance events are like the end of a semester exam, as much as measurements of strength or pounds or inches lost are.  They are a test of strength, endurance and preparation, and show me what I can accomplish, as well as providing a comparison point for past performance.

By creating a pathway with many little goals along the way and big tests, the goal of better health becomes more achievable and more doable.  Every day behavior like skipping workouts or eating too much crap has its own built in penalties- for any endurance event, you pay the price for everything you did right or wrong along the training path.  This then makes the daily changes a bit easier to do as well, knowing the big wall is coming up fast as the race approaches.

I need the numbers- the analysis of the progress to satisfy my rider.  I need to feel good about myself and the changes that are occurring to satisfy the elephant, who might rather be eating girl scout cookies and watching Project Runway.  And all of this is easier when the path is much more specific, clear, and the change looks doable in its chunked-out parts.  It makes even thinking about doing another half-marathon possible, because I know the change is possible and the next goal is attainable, because I’ve done it before.

The brilliance of Switch is that this formula is tied into Maslow’s heirarchy of needs and one that applies to almost any situation.  For example, most of the strategies suggested to help kids with ADHD succeed in school involve not trying to fundamentally change the child, but change the environment to help the child do what’s needed.  Checklists of chores takes the amorphous “Do your chores” and breaks it down into specific, doable tasks, itemized and specific.  Showing a child how to be a bit more organized, and giving them tools that help ensure that they can keep the system up, with frequent checks, develops new, more constructive habits.  Getting rid of the daily speedbumps that turn a child off course- whether that’s always having things ready the night before to avoid morning panics, or smoothing the homework path by putting all their tools in one box and having a set place and time for work, or even putting hooks by the door so everything is available and convenient are small changes that can lead to big results.  Change can occur even in kids known to struggle in school, but they need those small successes to satisfy the elephant who needs to feel good, and they need “stuff to do” to satisfy the rider, but the pathway and environment are just as critical to success.

IDEO, the legendary design firm, works so well because their template works to make change of systems or design of new products integrate almost seamlessly into the way things are done.  they start out with understanding the problems or issues at hand- really getting to know what’s going on and how the situation isn’t working.  They then observe people using current products, or working with a customer, to understand how things are done now, and to start to get ideas about where a system or process might eb breaking down. Then they start the brainstorming and visualizing possible solutions ot the problem.  They rapidly put together prototypes, and then evaluate and refine what worked or didn’t work with the inital attempts, to tweek and further diagnose what will work in the end.  Then, they take their final product and implement it- what Seth Godin calls “shipping”- because all the greatest ideas in the world are worth nothing if they aren’t actually put into use.  Success means shipping- you’ve got to get the ideas out the door and into the real world- where the rubber meets the road.

While I’m still thinking a lot about Switch, it’s a book that helps me tie together all the separate ideas discussed above:

– how personal change and cultural change aren’t really so different;

-how many people problems can be solved by tweeking external environments and expectations;

-how good design and understanding problems are both key to making change successful,

and how in the end, it’s all measured by the implementation, and satusfying both the numbers people and the emotional folks as well- it’s a good change if people can see the difference and that how they feel about the change may be as critical to the outcome as any other part.   Never short-change the power of dedication, passion and enthusiasm- they will carry you pretty far down even a murky path, provided the obstacles aren’t too big at first.

I would definitely recommend Switch, another excellent book by Chip & Dan Heath- and don’t worry if you don’t love the metaphor of the rider and the elephant.  Like all good mysteries, it makes more sense in the end than in the beginning.