Switch: Dare to change

Switch: Dare to change

Initial publication


  • March 16 2012

70% of change initiatives are doomed to fail (Maurer, 2010).

Faced with such statistics, we have to consider that the currently used change management tools have some weaknesses, at the very least some blind spots, when it comes to either diagnostic, planning or execution of the change initiative. Many tools and methods are suggested to be better equipped to deal with the challenges facing us. Among these, a cleverly illustrated framework captured my imagination, the one presented by Chip and Dan Heath in their 2010 book Switch: How to change things when change is hard.

The Heath brothers use a particular metaphor to illustrate the challenges of change management. They present it as being an elephant and its driver. It can be applied to any type of change, even personal one, but lets focus on how it applies to change management in the organization. Any change initiative depends on the changing of behaviors, whether it targets members of a team or the whole organization. The decision to change or not will be taken by each individual member of the unit, and the success will depend on their collective buy-in to the change initiative. Change management practitioners can influence the decision process that will lead individual to chose whether to change or not. That’s exactly where the metaphor of an elephant and its driver will be most useful.

Each individual has both a rational side, its driver, and an emotional side, its elephant. Both of those will need to walk along a predetermined path to reach a real change in behavior.

The driver, our rational side

We all like to think we are rational actors above anything else. We like to believe that especially when we’re in a business context. Which is why we need to start any planning by considering what could stop our driver from reaching its goal.

One of the most common trap is hyperrationality. Convinced that approaching every problem rationally is the one true way, the driver can end up plagued by decision paralysis. The limitless availability of data can push him to inaction or see him gather ever more data that look useful to him but that are not related to the decision that needs to be taken. The driver is swamped and doesn’t know where to steer its oversized steer.

We have to find tools that will allow every individual to connect with their own driver and help them find the pertinent information that will actually help in making a decision and moving forward.


Find shining examples

Find, within or without your organizations, repeatable successes similar to what you’re trying to do and clearly communicate them. Our rational side loves to see what has proven to be possible already. By studying those bright spots, you may figure out what works and what doesn’t, and how that applies to your organizational needs.

Prepare a script

Instead of giving vague directions as to what needs to change, spell out specific behavior that will lead the individual to adopting the change initiative. For example, instead of repeating that employees should be courteous with each other, start by telling them they should always thank someone who has helped them.

Make the destination obvious

It’s easier to get going if we have a clear idea of where we want to be. Never forget that what motivates you may not motivate someone else. You have to find how each individual can be motivated to make the effort to reach the desired state. As a change agent, what motivates you to change may not be what would do so for a line employee, or even for a manager.

The elephant, the emotional side

Our rational driver is sitting on its elephant, a large, emotional animal that sometimes ignores outright what its driver is telling him. Organisational changes often have a direct impact on the individual, whether through redefining their role in the organization or simply by creating stress when it comes to what is to come. You need to face those emotional reactions to make sure every individual’s driver and elephant are going the same way. Rationally explaining why your change initiative is good for everyone will rarely suffice, you have to consider, and talk to, the individuals’ emotions.


Find the emotion

You have to communicate the need to change based on the emotional side of the individuals. Limiting yourself to the facts of the change initiative motivation and goals will not be enough. Ideally, you will find a way to illustrate the motivations behind a change initiative in a way that has a greater impact on the individual and which will make it more concrete to them. Understand what each individual may be feeling when faced with your change initiative; understand why; and address those emotions.

Shrink the change

To the elephant, the need to change, no matter how serious it is, may seem enormous. Try to shrink this perception. It may be by splitting a sizeable change initiative into bite-sized chunks that seem more manageable, or by focusing on what actually needs to be done instead of explaining all the causes, effects and possible impacts.

Grow the individual

Each individual, when faced with an externally motivated change will inevitably have to redefine who he is in relation to the situation. Instead of letting each individual deal with the process on their own, try to help them find their new identity through the process. Your department may say they will change how they are perceived company-wide to something that is more in line with how they are perceiving themselves, for example. Find specific identity markers that individuals will relate to and want to become.

The path

Every individual’s driver and elephant are now working together to reach their desired state. Congratulations!

Think back to yesterday. How often has your external environment redefined your behavioral intent? Your environment certainly had an impact on your behavior, we don’t exist in perfect bubble universes free from the effect of others.

You need to clear the path of environmental blockages that would only hinder your change initiative. Every member of your team may be convinced of the need to change and the way to go about it, but if their environment doesn’t change, that may prove harder to do than you expected. It may seem to work at first only to see old behaviors crop up again once the initial euphoria to your change initiative has passed.


Change the environment

A change to the environment can greatly help another change to take root. Rather than repeating to your employees that they should submit their refund request on the new electronic system, why not simply get rid of all paper copies that may look easier to use because they are well known.

Create habits

A habit is a behaviour that has been repeated often enough to become natural and to no longer need active participation from the driver. Find a way to get people into good habits. Reward and recognise each repetition of a behaviour until it becomes natural.

Rally the herd

Group effects are well known; use them to reinforce wanted behaviours. While they are individuals who can make their own decisions, people are in a group context where, for many reasons, behaviours that are positively received by the group are more likely to be repeated. Try to put into place official recognition mechanisms for individuals to use when they see someone else showing the desired behaviour.

Back to the book

The main cause of failure of change initiative may not be resistance to change, which too often gets the credit. It may be more likely that the driver and the elephant are not going the same way, or that you have forgotten to create the right environment to foster the desired change.

Reading Switch will give you a window into many examples of the different suggestions of the authors, be it in an organisational setting, on an individual level, or for social reasons. While not always backed by solid empirical studies, their arguments “make sense”. In short, they will convince your own elephant and driver that their model applies to reality, which, in itself, is proof positive that the model may actually work and deserves to be added to your toolbox.

One thing you should ponder: resistance to change, which is presented in this book as a disagreement between the elephant and the driver or by an undefined path is not, in itself, a bad thing. Don’t forget that a perceived resistance to change is often a proof of loyalty towards what the organisation represents in the eyes of its members and use this realisation to build, with them, a new vision that they will share and will serve to justify the sound reasoning of your change initiative in their eyes. A “resisting” employee is an employee that is still engaged, it’s up to you to use this engagement in everyone’s best interest.

Sources :

Heath, Chip and Dan Heath (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. Random House, 336p.

Heath, Chip and Dan Heath (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. Random House Canada, 320p.

Maurer, Rick (2010). Beyond the wall of resistance: Why 70% of all changes still fail–and what you can do about it (2e édition). Bard Press, 208p.

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