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Switch - Book Review

1 June 2014
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

The book "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard" was authored by brothers Chip and Dan Heath in 2010. Initially unfamiliar with the authors, I came across the book thanks to Omer, and it immediately piqued my interest. To get straight to the point, I found it so enjoyable that I've already pre-ordered the new book the brothers wrote, set to be released later this month. The Heaths, who specialize in business administration at various universities in the United States, are adept writers and highly instructive and methodical in their approach.


The book is rich with examples but avoids overwhelming the reader with redundant concepts; any repetition reinforces the ideas. The central theme presented in this book is that to succeed in effecting change, regardless of the scale, it's beneficial to influence three key components: intellect and logic, depicted as a cyclist guiding us on our journey; our willpower, represented as an obstinate elephant that requires sufficient motivation to move forward; and the environment, which is sometimes overlooked as we tend to focus on changing people rather than the surroundings. However, influencing and altering the environment is often more feasible and surprisingly effective in achieving successful human change.


The book explores the following topics:

  1. Directing the Rider

  2. Motivating the Elephant

  3. Designing the Environment

  4. Sustaining Change Momentum


Only some changes are straightforward, primarily because the rest of the world might not be immediately receptive to the changes you propose. Nonetheless, change is undeniably attainable. The concepts and examples presented in the book are highly relevant and applicable to individuals, teams, organizations, and even entire nations. Even if familiar, the significant ideas are accompanied by practical and focused suggestions that facilitate the process. Unsurprisingly, the book reached the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list. I wholeheartedly recommend it.


Directing the Rider

As mentioned earlier, every transformation also requires engaging our intellect and logic. The mind is the source of planning and guidance, controlling our changes. While the mind possesses strengths, it also harbors weaknesses: it tends to gravitate towards analysis and overthinking at the expense of acting, and it can become fatigued and drained when combatting motivation, often with minimal chances of success. When observing individuals who struggle to change and labeling them as resistant or lazy, the root cause is typically not their innate nature; instead, it's often their lack of a clear destination. The rider must be given clear direction.


Several essential tools are provided to paint a vivid picture and chart the course for the rider, ranging from the macro-level to finer details:

  1. Define a Clear Destination:

  • Clearly define the desired goal. Even when the change-makers objective is evident at times, it doesn't necessarily mean that those changing understand its significance and feel it distinctly. Clarity is of utmost importance.

  • Goals and objectives should be explicit and, if applicable, quantifiable in terms of time and achievement levels.

  • Reiterate the rationale behind the change, emphasizing its importance (and urgency). Present it in a clear and memorable slogan. Guidance is crucial since the rider often becomes mired in analysis and planning at the expense of action.

  • Focus the guidance on specifics rather than generalities (e.g., instead of discussing weight loss broadly, focus on switching from 3% fat milk to 1%).

The underlying principle here is that significant challenges often have practical, small-scale solutions that are easier to implement. Just consider...


2.Finding Bright Spots:

  • Even when you know your destination, determining the right path to reach it can be challenging. The Heath brothers propose an effective tool for uncovering solutions to drive change – identifying "bright spots." This involves analyzing the successes of others or localized achievements and using these insights to understand how success can be achieved.

  • For instance, in a village that aimed to reduce the number of malnourished children, a significant issue in that area, they examined what set the few children with a healthy weight apart. Based on their findings, they established clear guidance and specific goals. It's important to note that motivation (the elephant) wasn't the problem in this case; the mothers wanted their children to be healthy – they just lacked knowledge on how to achieve it. They learned that mixing meat with rice and actively feeding the children instead of waiting for them to request food was the right approach.


3.Detailed Mission Definition for Critical Actions:

  • The third tool is implemented at the tactical level: defining concrete, actionable tasks that people are expected to perform. When there are too many options for execution, the rider (representing us and our minds) can become overwhelmed. Studies have shown that many choices, like various types of jam in a store, can reduce overall sales. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon.

  • The key is to define tasks that address the critical moves and minimize confusion. It's unnecessary to create an extensive list of tasks for the entire process; focus on the beginning and, if possible, the end, and create a concise list of critical tasks for these stages. It's best to allow people to manage independently for everything in between, as it's often challenging to predict every detail in advance.


Motivating the Elephant

Frequently, the mind is willing, yet we encounter difficulties in bringing about change. This applies to personal habits like eating and smoking and to workplace tasks such as submitting reports on time. It's also evident in our roles as managers and citizens. This resistance to change stems from the inner elephant within us. No matter how robust and astute a cyclist may be, they can only budge the elephant if it has committed to moving.


The primary tools offered for motivating and directing the elephant are as follows:

  1. Evoke Emotions: At the core of any change is the alteration of people's behaviors. Achieving behavioral change is more effective when it resonates with people's emotions. This applies equally to organizations that consider themselves business-oriented. A study conducted by Kotter, globally renowned for his leadership in change theories, and Cohen revealed that it wasn't the process of analytical thinking that drove change success; it was the process of creating a vision that invoked feelings, yielding better results. It's no surprise, as emotions are what propel the elephant. While negative emotions can drive swift actions, positive emotions fuel long-term change efforts. Positive emotions expand our horizons, making us more open, curious, and resourceful. They foster a receptive mindset, creativity, and optimism.

  2. Simplify the Change: Another pivotal tool is to make the path to change seem achievable. When people feel that they have already embarked on the journey to solving and achieving change, they are more likely to embrace it. For example, if one store sells an item for 100 ₪, while another store offers it for 120 ₪ but provides a 20 ₪ coupon, more people will opt to purchase it, feeling that they've already saved the initial 20 ₪ and are on their way to making a purchase. The recommendation from the Heath brothers is to lower the bar rather than raise it when you want something to succeed. Reducing the perceived change makes it easier for people to embrace it. The more people feel they've made progress, the easier it is to keep the momentum rolling. Reducing change is accomplished by breaking it down into manageable activities, setting boundaries for action, and creating milestones. This approach instills hope and enables the celebration of small victories, reinforcing the sense of change that has already occurred. While some may consider this manipulation, it is an effective method.

  3. Foster Personal Growth: The complementary tool to simplifying change is personal growth. This doesn't refer to physical growth but rather the development of a shared identity that empowers individuals and gives them the strength and resources to drive change. This identity could be framed as "caring citizens," "a company of entrepreneurial and innovative employees," and more. An identity and the associated group identity motivate individuals to work towards the goals it represents. Identity development can be applied to almost any group or individual in various change contexts. Surprisingly, people are open to developing identities and are receptive. The challenge lies in the accompanying process. For instance, when aiming to persuade individuals to initiate more and create an organizational identity of a company with entrepreneurial and innovative employees, there may be an interim period during which the identity is introduced, yet people wait to act in accordance. While feelings and desires (of the elephant) are essential, they alone do not guarantee change. It's vital to recognize that this phase is part of the process. In the business world, there's often an assumption that people will immediately act on new concepts once introduced. However, reality is more complex. An intermediate training phase is required, and mistakes are permissible during coaching. Disappointment is less likely when people understand and communicate that this is a natural part of the progression, as it's acknowledged as an integral part of the journey despite the lack of immediate progress. The Heath brothers present a model of "U-feminism" that starts with hope, transitions to training (the descent), but then returns and ascends to a state of confidence. The hope-coaching-security model is crucial for navigating the change process. When people reach a state of security, motivating the elephant and sustaining change becomes significantly easier.


An example from the book illustrates a school principal who took charge of a struggling school. She instilled an identity of successful students, but more was needed for them to succeed. She revised the grading system in tandem with the teaching staff, replacing failing grades with "Not Yet Passed" (T.A.) grades. This transformed the school's culture, as each student was viewed as having potential, some already succeeding and others on the path to success. This change was instrumental in propelling students to success.


Human growth is predicated on the belief that our minds and abilities are like muscles, capable of training and development. If we have faith in our capacity to change, we can make it happen.


Designing the Environment

The book introduces a surprising concept, which was particularly eye-opening for me – the concept of environmental design. While we often focus on changing people as the transformation target, the book presents an equally valuable tool – altering the environment. By changing the surroundings, there's a good chance of successfully motivating people. For instance, giving moviegoers a larger box of popcorn can lead them to consume more, even if the popcorn isn't fresh or they don't have room to finish the smaller box. Adapting to the environment, people naturally adjust their behavior according to the cues provided without requiring extensive persuasion.


  1. Modify the Environment: The conventional belief that people behave according to their inherent nature is inaccurate. In reality, people's behavior is significantly influenced by their surroundings. Sometimes, changing the environment is more effective than trying to change people directly. Environmental adjustments or the removal of obstacles can facilitate change. We often need to recognize it, such as simplifying a form or implementing user-friendly computer systems. For instance, ATMs emit a beep before dispensing money to prevent people from leaving their cards behind. Another example involves a hospital in the United States that aimed to reduce cases of administering the wrong medication. Despite initial resistance, a special vest indicating a nurse's role in the "medication distribution ritual" was introduced. Although everyone disliked it, the mortality rate dropped by 47% in six months. The same principle applies to changing the layout of a manager's office, which can make them more attentive to their employees. The essence is clear – modifying the environment changes the circumstances, making it easier for people to adjust their deeply ingrained behaviors.

  2. Cultivate Habits: The book reveals that it's possible to instill new habits in people or alter existing ones, even after age 18. People are highly receptive to their environment and the cultural expectations of their community. An illustrative study demonstrated that when soldiers returned from Vietnam, drug use diminished drastically due to a change in environment and the altered expectations of their community. This principle also applies to breaking old habits by changing the environment and establishing new ones. To foster new habits, a helpful tool is the concept of "trigger action." Asking people to specify how and when they plan to implement a habit increases their likelihood of following through. For example, when people want to donate food, encouraging them to include a request in the referral letter, asking that they bring the required items along during their visit to a specific location, significantly boosts donations. The goal should be supported and easy to implement to ensure successful habit-building. Gollwitzer's research demonstrates that in cases where significant change is required, the concept of "action trigger" becomes especially effective.

  3. Harness Group Influence: The last central tool described by the Heath brothers pertains to the social environment. Peer pressure impacts all of us, and creating social norms can influence individuals to conform and behave as expected. This phenomenon isn't exclusive to teenagers; it affects us all. When people are uncertain about acting and need guidance, they observe their peers and those around them to shape their behavior. For example, adding signs in hotel bathrooms stating that most guests reuse towels at least once significantly increases towel reuse. Publishing a progress report detailing the extent to which various subgroups in an organization are progressing in change (making it clear who needs to make progress) is highly effective in implementing change once the majority is already on board. People generally strive to avoid standing out and correct their behavior when they believe others are aware of their actions. To make this strategy work, it's necessary to empower change advocates to create a critical mass and enact this approach. Another application of this concept involves changing the social environment to reduce drunk driving. For instance, introducing the concept of a designated driver who doesn't consume alcohol did not immediately catch on. However, the idea became widespread after its portrayal in numerous TV series and Hollywood movies. Within a year, the number of casualties from alcohol-related accidents decreased significantly. While we can't always rely on Hollywood for change, there are more modest and practical ways to enact change. Courage is often required, along with the methods proposed in the book, which appear highly practical and effective—highly recommended.


Sustaining Change Momentum

Let's revisit the fundamental concepts: the rider, the elephant, and the environment. In the initial stages of any change endeavor, the critical question is whether the challenge lies in motivating the rider, employing logical arguments to persuade those who may not initially connect with the change, or if the primary obstacle is motivating our elephant, which needs more willpower. The rational mind, as capable as it may be (e.g., "smoking is detrimental to health"), often struggles to compel the elephant to action. As the Heath brothers emphasize, the heart and the brain often disagree in many aspects of life.


However, it is generally beneficial to address both aspects simultaneously, strengthening the rider and the elephant. Consequently, it's advisable to incorporate environmental design to facilitate the change process.


It's essential to remember that change is not an isolated event but a continuous process that requires time. More than waiting alone is needed, as sustaining effort until change occurs spontaneously can be arduous. A proactive approach is essential even when you begin and diligently follow the tips and recommendations provided above.


So, what's the solution? Celebrate minor triumphs. One of the mechanisms that motivates us as individuals is the concept of positive dissonance; we seek to rationalize our actions. We convince ourselves that the effort was justified when we observe our achievements and recognize their value. This self-conviction significantly eases the path forward.


If we manage to initiate this snowball effect, building on these small victories and celebrating them, the momentum of change will gradually pick up, rolling on its own. It's at this juncture that we can all wear a smile. 😊


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