Sunday, December 19, 2010

From small steps come big changes, Heaths say

Engage the rider and the elephant, and you will get results, say Chip and Dan Heath. 

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Not a big fan of change, per se. Change my underwear, change the channel, change tables, change the scenery (once in a while, for a weekend or so) or hope that my favorite pitcher throws a change-up, but when it comes to big, hairy, fundamental changes, include me out. It's not that I'm averse to change; I'm not, truly. But I've pretty much got it down, so I'm not looking to change wives, kids, favorite sports teams, preferred breakfast (steel-cut oats, please) or any number of other elements in my life. And I'm not alone. But life is change and if we fail to alter our behavior when required to do so, dire fates often await.

The Heaths' previous book, 2007's Made to Stick, looked at the reasons some ideas gained traction and made it through the morass of marketing, media and more to attain "stickness'' in our consciousness. Good one! But this new brotherly collaboration is something completely different. The pair looks at why we're resistant to change and the means by which we can, er, change that.

As with Made to Stick, the text is smart, breezy and humorous, but no less elegant, well researched and insightful. The biggest takeaway, for me, was not anything new. In fact it's a variation of one of the most important tenets of child rearing, "Praise the good.''

How does that apply here? Well, they start with dividing the brain (similar to Godin and Pink in their recent books) into "the rider'' and "the elephant.'' The latter is our emotional and instinctive side, say the Heaths, and the former is the part of us that tries to stay on track and get things done. The Heaths contend that in order for change to take place, both the rider and the elephant need to engaged and satisfied. And instead of focusing solely on problems that need to be solved or negative behaviors that must be eliminated, they advocate seeking the bright spots and replicating them (aka "praise the good''). They also offer the idea that small adjustments can make more of a difference than seeking the root causes of the dysfunctionality.

They tell the story of a frustrated psychologist who was having trouble with her golf swing. The pro who helped her didn't examine her childhood for clues or ask about how she related to her mother. Instead, he suggested minor changes to her swing and achieved immediate favorable results. It was a revelation that informed her approach to dealing with her patients, henceforth concentrating on small, achievable steps that worked.

There are plenty of similar anecdotes herein from business, government, healthcare, academia and other areas of human interaction where change seems difficult or impossible, yet someone found ways to get from here to there. They also offer specific steps for a variety of scenarios.
While not every transition is easy, the Heaths show that it can be done, and how to do so when it seems impossible. Now, when business needs to be more nimble than ever, reading this great little book could well be among the most effective small steps you can take.

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