Book review: Switch—How to Change Things When Change is Hard

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 18, 2010
Filed in Business storytelling

It was going to be difficult to surpass their last book, Made to Stick, where they showed us that people wont pay attention unless our message is simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and a story. And it was going to be even harder practising what they preached to make Switch stick. But I’m delighted to report that they’ve pulled it off and have created an engaging and useful work on how to change things when change is hard.

Switch is arranged around an analogy (immediately visual and sticky). When we are making a decision we’re often torn between our rational, logical reasons and our emotional, intuitive feelings. Chip and Dan ask us to imagine an Elephant and its Rider (the mahout). The Rider represents the rational and logical. Tell the Rider what to do, provide a good argument and the Rider will do it. The Elephant, on the other hand, represents our emotions, our gut response. The Rider might like to avoid that hamburger and chips but there is very little the Rider can do if the Elephant really wants it (OK, so I’m telling you what happened last night). To complete their analogy they include the Path they are travelling along. If the Rider can direct the Elephant down a well prepared Path then there is a good chance for change. The Path might represent, for example, access to user friendly technology or effective office space design. Switch is arranged in three parts: Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant and Shape the Path.

On Saturday in 2000 … In 1990 … A doctor was asked … Crystal Jones joined Teach for America in 2003 … These are the first few words of the first four chapters and apart from the last chapter each starts with a story. And within each chapter are more stories. These stories are well chosen and illustrate the behaviours we need to adopt to effect change. The whole book is focussed on behaviours and rightly makes the point that change comes from changing people’s behaviour. That’s the level you need to take. A leader cannot afford to stay aloof. For change to occur they need to get into the detail as well as stay strategic.

As a business storyteller Switch is a treasure trove of stories to be retold in organisations. Last week I was running a strategy workshop and I wanted the group to identify a set of guiding principles for their organisation. So I told them the story of the Brazilian railway that was going broke and how Alexandre Behring and his CFO created four rules to guide everyone’s spending behaviour to get them out of debt. I shared the rules with the participants and they knew exactly what I meant and were able to easily create their own guiding principles. Strategy execution is a change initiative and Chip and Dan advise us to script the critical moves.

Here is the structure of the book. Notice how each section is a pointer to behaviour.

Direct the Rider: Find the bright spots; Script the critical moves; Point to the destination

Motivate the Elephant: Find the feeling; Shrink the Change; Grow your people

Shape the Path: Tweak the environment; Build habits; Rally the herd

On page 58 we encounter our first clinic and I must admit I groaned slightly when I bumped into it. Getting me to do exercises while I’m reading is normally a pain. I was going to just skip the clinic but decided to have a read and the thing I noticed was that the repetition of the ideas in another context was really helping me to remember. I knew repetition is important but I guess the story approach sucked me in and reinforced it.

One the first things I check when I get a book like Switch is to see whether it is comprehensively referenced and what type of studies are being referred to (if any). Switch passed with flying colours. The endnotes are expansive and they share a swag of evidence for each point they make and often used the psychological experiments as stories rather than just presenting the facts.

Switch is a book that will be read by senior leaders. It’s engaging, well written, funny in parts and insightful. If you’re an change practitioner in an organisation I recommend you buy a handful of copies and give them to your leaders. In my experience they wont read it right away but then they’ll jump on a flight and start and wont stop. At this point you’ll not only have a supporter but someone who will compel your involvement. Malcolm Gladwell has served me well in the past and Switch is in the same league.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. chris colton says:

    Hi Shawn
    I am just getting into Switch. I am past the excellent analogy of rider, elephant and path. I am now into the section of working with the rider. What struck me is the similarity of their “look for the bright spots” with Appreciative Enquiry. Look for the good things and clone them; don’t look for the problems and try and solve them. Its so easy in change management to focus on all the problems and look for big solutions. I read Make it Stick but if anything this is better.

  2. Hi Chris, positive deviancy and appreciative inquiry seem to have similar roots and approaches. It is a big part of the work we do at Anecdote. Stories help you find the bright spots.

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