Have you ever had a great idea for your business or family and set about to implement it, only to find that no one else was on board or even interested in your plans? Did you give up in the end? Or do you wish you could better persuade others to make changes? Or just get yourself to make changes?
Well, as Chip and Dan Heath observe, getting yourself to change is hard, and getting others to change can seem insurmountably difficult. But their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard explains why it’s so challenging and offers some strategies for effecting real change in your and others’ lives.
Chip Heath is a professor of organizational behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. And Dan Heath is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship. This brother team also wrote Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
The surprising facts about change
The authors start by describing three characteristics of change which might surprise you:
- What looks like a people problem is often a situational problem.
- What looks like laziness is exhaustion.
- What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.
They explain that we often unconsciously respond to our environment and small changes in surroundings can encourage changes in behavior. They also point out that change requires conscious thought, effort, and energy, which wears us out quickly. That’s why we often revert to old habits when we’re tired.
Finally, they discuss how we often ask ourselves and others to make vague changes, like eating better, but we don’t specify what that actually means so it’s hard to know how to take the first step. In this case, we aren’t resisting the new idea. We just don’t know what to do.
With this understanding in mind, Heath and Heath describe several strategies for helping yourself and others shift behavior. They illustrate the points with plenty of inspiring real-world examples and supporting research. There’s much more in the book than I can cover, but here are a few of the suggestions I found most interesting.
Focus on the bright spots
If you want to effect certain results, find out who’s already doing it and see if you can emulate them. Heath and Heath observe that we often see change as a process for fixing what’s wrong, when we could make more progress by replicating what’s right.
They tell the story of Jerry Sternin, who, while working with Save the Children in Vietnam, set out to help the country fight malnutrition. Sternin couldn’t do anything about the political or social structures or the country’s infrastructure. But he did find that some children living in poverty grew up healthy.
He investigated these “bright spots,” learned what the mothers of these kids were doing differently, and set up programs to help others do the same thing. In the end he reached 2.2 million Vietnamese in 265 villages.
Heath and Heath stress that Sternin and his team didn’t have a big budget or major political power. “All they had was a deep faith in the power of bright spots.”
Shrink the change
This advice wasn’t new to me. If you’ve ever read a book about creating habits, it will ring familiar to you as well, but I include it here because it’s the exact opposite of what most people do when they try to create change in an organization.
Usually, when we want people to act differently, we have an announcement with fanfare and excitement and audacious goals. We want to make a big change fast. But Heath and Heath advise that it’s much easier to take small steps and let them add up over time.
Big shifts take a ton of energy; after a short time, we’re too exhausted to carry on. But small adjustments take less effort so we don’t give up on them so quickly. If you want to increase repeat sales, for example, you can ask sales people to send just one email a day to an inactive customer. It’s too small a commitment to create much resistance, but the results add up over time.
Heath and Heath also suggest helping people see that they’ve already made progress. If you want your team to start using customer management software, you can point out how they already track customer emails and keep notes on their meetings. Then it’s just a short hop to putting that information in the new system.
The authors tell the story of Steven Kelman, who was asked to lead the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) for Bill Clinton in 1993. At the time, the OFPP was incredibly inefficient and bogged down by often contradictory regulations. Kelman had a small staff and no real power, but he found success in small projects.
He started by asking departments to use their government credit cards to buy inexpensive items like office supplies rather than going through the procurement process. Once people accepted that procedure, he asked them to make additional improvements, one step at a time.
In 1998, The Brookings Institute gave his procurement reform initiative an “A” rating. He had made a real impact with the cumulative effect of small changes.
So tiny steps make a difference, but Heath and Heath warn that you need commitment from management to keep up the progress. You have to select your changes carefully, make sure people acknowledge the “wins,” and build on the momentum.
You want to select small wins that have two traits: (1) They’re meaningful. (2) They’re “within immediate reach,” as Bill Parcells said. And if you can’t achieve both traits, choose the latter!
Tweak the environment
As noted above, sometimes changing people’s surroundings can make a difference in their behavior. The authors write, “Tweaking the environment is about making the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder.”
Heath and Heath cite an example in which a hospital wanted to decrease errors in medication administration. Normally, nurses field questions from others as they work, but it takes focus to make sure every patient receives the right pills. So the nurses began wearing orange vests when working with medication. When people saw the vests, they knew not to interrupt just then. This small change decreased medication errors by 47%.
Even re-arranging your furniture can help. The authors tell the story of Nike manager Amanda Tucker, who improved her relationships with employees by moving her office around so she could talk to people without a desk and computer between them.
More effective change
The suggestions offered by Heath and Heath in this book may seem counter-intuitive at first, but as you read their examples and the associated research, you’ll see how powerful they can be.
The authors point out that nothing will ever make change easy as long as there are humans involved. But I thank Chip and Dan Heath for giving us all a new toolbox that could make the difference between meaningful evolution and business-as-usual.