A Software Developer’s Book Review and Summary of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

December 20th, 2020

I love to read books. My go-to genres are fantasy, science fiction, murder mysteries, psychological thrillers, and novels. I enjoy fiction more than non-fiction. Aside from reading technical books and articles, and perhaps a book on philosophy here and a biography there, I’ve mostly stuck with fiction novels. I wanted to change that. I wanted to read something that would help me become a better version of myself, both personally and professionally. One of my friends recommended I read Switch by Chip & Dan Heath (Heath, Chip and Dan. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Broadway Books, 2010.). Switch is a book about how to make successful changes in human behavior at different levels. I bought the book. Well, that was the easy part. The hard part was bringing myself to read it. It sat on my nightstand for an embarrassingly long time before I picked it up. 

I wanted to read it but why couldn’t I get myself to read it? Unbeknownst to me, one of the things that the authors mention often happens with people, was happening with me too. My “Rider” and my “Elephant” were at war with each other. Wait, did I enter a magic wardrobe somehow? No! It’s what the authors say are the two sides of our brains. The rational side and the emotional side – the Rider and the Elephant. Ah, the plot thickens! The Rider provides planning and direction while the Elephant provides the drive and energy. But they often disagree and when that happens, the Rider often loses. My Rider would tell me that it’s time I reached for the book but my Elephant would devilishly whisper in my ear that I am tired, that it’s been a long day and that I deserve to kick back and find my escape in an imaginary world. My goal oriented Rider would then give in to my instant gratification seeking Elephant. Not for long though! 

One day I reasoned with my Elephant that I’ve been putting it off for a long time now and promised it that I’d read the book for just 15 minutes. Not a second more. With that simple act, I was doing yet another thing that the authors mention in their book. They recommend that you do whatever it is you’ve been putting off for a while, for a very finite amount of time to get over your inertia. I started out with the clear intent of reading the book for only 15 minutes and then promptly going back to my murder mystery. But once I started reading it, I was pulled into it. I lost track of time and before I knew it, I had read it for over an hour. 

The authors did a great job with structure and organization of content in the book. Their writing is simple but brilliant. Every point they make is backed up with good examples, and lots of them too. I liked that they’ve cited a good number of examples, experiments and case studies from a humanitarian working to fight malnutrition to a consulting firm controller getting the employees to submit their expense reports on time, to drive home their point. They don’t take on a pontificating or supercilious attitude. Their sense of humor shines through in the book, making it an easy read. One of the reasons I procrastinated reading this book was probably because I subconsciously dreaded that it was going to be a slog and that I will have to wade through difficult prose. I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t. I finished reading it the very next day. Although a few of the examples and solutions offered seem too simplistic, it shouldn’t deter the reader from grasping ideas that the authors want to convey. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is looking to change something in their personal, social or professional lives. Following is a summary and layout of the book interspersed with a few paraphrased, supporting examples, for those whose interest is piqued.

Reading a book about change has actually brought a change in me.

Oftentimes when we talk about “change” in our personal or professional lives, and how hard it is to achieve it, and how even when we sometimes seemingly achieve it, it’s ephemeral, we fail to realize a trio of things. The book starts out by listing what those three things are that catch us off guard on our journey toward change: 

  1. What looks like a people problem is a situation problem. 
  2. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. 
  3. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.

In a recent personal experience, I realized the first point: what looks like a people problem is a situation problem. Back in March when schools were closed because of COVID-19, at first temporarily, followed by a not-so-engaging remote learning schedule, my kids fell into boredom. It was all fun and games at first but after the novelty wore off, they started hating the whole situation. They missed going to school, interacting with their peers, and playing with friends in the neighborhood. Watching TV and playing online games all day long wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It was daunting to imagine one whole summer of social distancing. I was afraid they’d become couch potatoes. The problem here wasn’t them. It was the situation. But given that we had little control over the situation, we had to get creative. We came up with a schedule for them to stick to, allotting time for reading, math, music, TV, some fun science projects and virtual play dates with their friends. If they kept to their schedule all week, they were rewarded with movie nights on the weekends and popcorn. That worked like a charm! Who knew that kids secretly craved schedules?! 

This example also ties into the second point: lack of clarity pulling us back. When there was no clear purpose to their day, the kids struggled. But once they knew what they were supposed to do, it was smooth sailing. 

The book discusses an interesting study where they’ve seated a group of people in a room with freshly-baked cookies. Only some were given cookies but all were asked to do some boring math. People who were not given cookies solved fewer math problems and for less time than those who were given the cookies. This illustrates the third point: exhaustion is often mistaken for laziness. We have a limited amount of self-control or will-power and when it’s all used up, we flounder. That is an incredibly important thing to know about ourselves.

The book uses the Rider and Elephant metaphor to distill the aforementioned three surprises into three parts to achieve change: 

  1. Direct the Rider 
  2. Motivate the Elephant 
  3. Shape the Path 

Direct the Rider

The Rider is our rational side – a thinker and a planner. But he is often afflicted by “analysis paralysis.” He tends to over-analyze and overthink things. In situations where change is needed, the Rider displays a tendency to spin wheels, and cause stalling.

  1. Find the Bright Spots: The Bright Spot philosophy urges you to ask “What’s working and how can we do more of it?” instead of “What’s broken and how can we fix it?” Big problems don’t have to have big solutions. It could just be a series of smaller solutions. 

 In 1990, Jerry Sternin, working for Save the Children, an international organization that helps children in need, was sent to Vietnam to fight malnutrition. There was a host of problems: poor sanitation, universal poverty, no clean water, etc. Working against all these odds, and racing against time, he made a difference simply by looking for a bright spot. He searched for kids who were healthy despite their disadvantages, studied them and found that the bright-spot moms were feeding their kids four meals a day (the same amount of food as other moms) but spreading it across four servings rather than two. This, combined with a few other small changes in the kind of foods they ate, Sternin was able to provide a solution. (Heath 27-32)

  1. Script the Critical Moves: When there’s too many things clamoring for attention, the Rider often falls prey to decision paralysis. It exhausts the Rider. In times like these, scripting only the critical moves, instead of a whole lot, provides focus and makes it easy to dissolve resistance.

Barbara, the controller of a consulting firm found it frustrating when employees didn’t turn in their expense reports on time. The company’s monthly books needed to be closed and the expense reports were a necessary part of it. The “nag email” was a monthly tradition but after receiving it for a good number of times, it lost its sting. By eliminating confusing aspects of the reporting process and losing ambiguity in filing certain expenses, Barbara scripted her critical moves to rid employees of their resistance. (Heath 58-59)

  1. Point to the Destination: Having a grand vision and a big picture destination is good but it often leads to getting lost in analysis. What we want is a clear picture of the near-term future showing us what is possible. A series of such short-term goals will bring us to our big picture, postcard destination.

Crystal Jones, who joined Teach for America in 2003, was assigned to teach the first-grade class at an elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia. The skill gaps among her students were too big and many of them were tracking much below the standards. They were nowhere ready to be first graders. She announced that they’re all going to be like third graders by the end of the year. By pointing them in a direction that she wanted them to take, one they coveted, she lit a fire in their hearts and by the end of the year, over 90 percent of the kids were reading at or above third-grade level. (Heath 73-75)

Motivate the Elephant

The Elephant, our emotional side provides the drive and energy to get things done. But it’s also easily demoralized. The Elephant with its limited supply of passion and self-control is at times plagued by self-doubt and a sense of detachment.

  1. Find the Feeling: Appealing to the emotional side of your brain will encourage open minds, creativity and hope. Find something that resonates with the Elephant and use it to your advantage.

Jon Stegner who worked for a large manufacturing company believed that the company was wasting huge amounts of money. He investigated a single item – work gloves. He found that they were purchasing 424 different kinds of gloves, using different suppliers with each negotiating their own price. The same pair of gloves that cost $5 at one factory might cost $17 at another. He gathered up all the gloves and had huge piles arranged on a large expansive table in the boardroom, each tagged with the price paid. When the executives walked around the table, looking at the prices, with their mouths agape, Stegner knew he hit his mark. (Heath 12-15)

  1. Shrink the Change: A sense of progress is critical, because the Elephant is easily demoralized. It needs constant encouragement and reassurance. In the face of a daunting task, it’s easy to fall into avoidance. By shrinking change, by moving the goalpost closer, by placing milestones within reach, you motivate the Elephant. 

A local car wash decided to run a promotion featuring loyalty cards. Every time a customer bought a car wash, they got a stamp on their cards. After eight stamps, they got a free wash. They have another set of customers with a slightly different loyalty card that needed ten stamps (rather than eight) to get a free car wash but two stamps were already added. Only 19 percent of the eight-stamp customers had earned a free wash while a whopping 34 percent of the head-start group earned theirs. Being 20 percent of the way toward your goal  is a very powerful motivating factor. (Heath 126-127)

It’s also how retailers trick us into buying things that we don’t need because they cleverly mark the price down while mentioning the regular price alongside it so we know what a great buy it is. (Oh, but I digress!)

  1. Grow Your People: While shrinking the change will make people seem “big” and “powerful,” growing people will give them strength. A sense of identity and belonging will propel them to make decisions and work toward them. The feeling of “we are all in this together” will act as Elephant fuel.

Molly Howard, a longtime special education teacher in Louisville, Georgia was offered her dream job to run a new high school. But with the promotion came a challenge, too. Eighty percent of the school’s students lived in poverty and only 15 percent of students in previous years had continued on to college. One of the most impactful changes Howard has made was to the grading system. The new system only offered grades A, B, C, and NY. Not Yet. She needed to dislodge the “culture of failure” that the students had embraced. When the understanding dawned on them that their teacher thinks they can do better, it helped a great deal with changing their mindsets. There was a dramatic rise in the graduation rate of the school. (Heath 173-175)

Shape the Path

What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem, and can be fixed by shaping the path. 

  1. Tweak the Environment: Tweaking the environment is about making the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder. If you want your child to eat healthy, remove junk food from your pantry. Keep fruit and other healthy food within reach. Grocery store managers want you to spend more time in their store, so they position milk coolers all the way in the back. The more time you spend in the store, the more things you buy. 

There was research that was done to study why college students did or didn’t donate food to a canned-food drive for charity. Not everybody is charitably inclined the same way. But researchers found that if the situation was altered, the less charitably inclined would give, too. Some students received a basic letter with the launch of a food drive, the time and venue where they need to drop it off. Others received a more detailed letter which included a map to the precise location, and a few other suggestions to optimize time, etc. Only 8 percent of the students who received the basic letter donated while a whopping 42 percent of the students that received the detailed letter donated. (Heath 182-183) 

  1. Build Habits: Most of us are creatures of habit. Our environment can sometimes act on us by reinforcing or deterring our habits. But forming a habit isn’t all environmental – it’s also mental. We cannot always be making tweaks to our environment in a way that would compel us to stick to a habit. 

Studies have found that action triggers are quite a powerful motivator. We’ve all been there. I put off going to the gym. If I make a mental plan to head straight to the gym after I drop the kids off at school, that is enough of an action trigger to put me on the straight and narrow. (Heath 209)

  1. Rally the Herd: It’s a fact that we imitate the behaviors of others. From a student who drinks more when paired with a roommate who drank frequently to a husband who puts on pregnancy weight alongside his pregnant wife, we’ve seen it enough times. In situations where we desire change, but unfamiliarity or uncertainty looms large, we often turn to others for cues on how to conduct ourselves. In situations where the herd has embraced the right behavior, publicizing it in turn to influence those we hope to sway is an attempt to get them on board. There’s strength in numbers, after all.

   A group of social psychologists persuaded a hotel manager to put up a sign in the hotel bathrooms. It simply said “the majority of guests at the hotel reuse their towels at least once during their stay.” Guests who saw this sign were 26 percent more likely to reuse their towels. Why not use the power of contagious behavior to instill environment friendly behavior?! (Heath 228-229)

That was a lot of examples and case studies, right? But it’s only the tip of the iceberg. To get the full effect of it, please read the book. I couldn’t just extol the beauty of the authors’ writing skills and leave it at that. In order to make a compelling argument for you to read it, I had to give you a little taste of it. And man, it was hard! But also fun. It was tough for me to pick one out of the many, many examples and research studies to support each of the points made in the book. But it was great going back and re-reading parts of it. I also made it my personal goal to read other books by the same authors before I branch out to other authors in the same genre. Wow! There it is! Reading a book about change has actually brought a change in me. I can only hope it takes! Also hope to see at least a few of you on the other side of reading this book.