Change: how to make it easy

Dear colleagues,

Bart Miller, an American history teacher in Oregon, had a problem with two boys in his class. They always arrived late, sat at the back and disrupted the class. He tried getting strict with them, including sending them to the principal, but it didn't work. So he tried something different. He bought a used couch and put it at the front of the classroom. The boys started coming to class early so they could "get a good seat" - on the couch, which was the cool place to sit compared to a desk.

How can people be encouraged to change? How can change in organisations be promoted? There's an enormous amount of writing in these areas. Of what I've read, one of the most accessible and helpful treatments is the book Switch, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

They proceed by telling stories about successful change initiatives. They adopt the metaphor of a person riding an elephant. The person is the rational part of the change process, the elephant is the emotional component, and the path taken is the environment. They discuss nine key points for effective change: three for the rider, three for the elephant and three for the path.

One of the methods for the rider is to "follow the bright spots", namely find out what's working and do more things like it. Another rider method is to "script the critical moves". They describe how people in a community were asked to switch to low-fat milk. This little change created a cascade of dietary improvements. Promoting a small critical move was more effective than pursuing much larger behavioural change.

For motivating the elephant - namely dealing with the emotional side of change - one of Heath and Heath's items is "shrink the change", namely make it seem small. This occurs in advertising when you're given a loyalty card to obtain a reward, and some of the required purchases are already recorded on the card. In the high-output writing programme, shrinking the change is the expectation to write just a few minutes each day.

Shaping the path can create dramatic changes in behaviour, as illustrated by how Bart Millar dealt with two disruptive boys in his class.

If you care about personal or organisational change and would like a clear, simple and engaging treatment, I recommend Switch.


Thanks to Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford and Tshering Yangden for useful comments on a draft.


Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (New York: Broadway Books, 2010)

"So when you hear people say that change is hard because people are lazy or resistant, that's just flat wrong. In fact, the opposite is true: Change is hard because people wear themselves out. And that's the second surprise about change: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion." (p. 12)

"One way to motivate action, then, is to make people feel as though they're already closer to the finish line than they might have thought." (p. 127)

"When you engineer early successes, what you're really doing is engineering hope. Hope is precious to a change effort." (p. 141)

"Action triggers simply have to be specific enough and visible enough to interrupt people's normal stream of consciousness. A trigger to 'praise your employees when they do something great' is too vague to be useful." (p. 211)

"If you want to change the culture of your organization, you've got to get the reformers together. They need a free space. They need time to coordinate outside the gaze of the resisters." (p. 247)

"The writer Amy Sutherland studied animal trainers who teach dolphins to jump through hoops and monkeys to ride skateboards. These are very, very long journeys indeed. ... trainers set a behavioral destination and then use 'approximations,' meaning that they reward each tiny step toward the destination. For example, in the first hour of the first day of training, the future skateboarding monkey gets a chunk of mango for not freaking out when the trainer puts the board in his cage. Later, he gets mango for touching the board, then for sitting on it, then for letting the trainer push him back and forth on it.

Frustrated by her husband's various pecadilloes, Sutherland began to use approximations with him: 'You can't expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session just as you can't expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.' And Scott, basking in the appreciation, began to change." (pp. 250-252)

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