Switch – How to change things when change is hard – Book Summary

Switch – How to change things when change is hard – Book Summary

By nature, we all like status quo, certainty and control over every situation. But life has become extremely complex, fast-changing and uncertain.

That means the only constant in our professional and personal lives is change. And change goes against our basic nature.

The winners are people who learn to do hard things. Managing change is one of them, because it enables you to become flexible and adapt to any new situation.

It enables you to grow and move forward. One of the best books that teaches people how to change things when change is hard is called Switch, written by Chip & Dan Heath.

The book presents many interesting stories of how change was successfully implemented, based on a behavioral psychology mental model of the Rider and the Elephant that was originally presented by psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

It offers a very precise and simple step-by-step formula for implementing change. That’s why I decided to write a summary of the book.

How to implement change

Reach the emotional and rational side of people and clear the way for them to succeed

For any change to happen, someone has to decide something and start acting differently. It can be you, your team or even your family.

But if people don’t start behaving in a different way, there is no change. And if you want to change people’s behavior, you’ve got to influence their heart, mind and situational environment.

Many times, we try to change people by educating them. That’s far from enough.

Only knowledge never solves problems, because knowledge rarely changes behavior. That’s why we have depressed shrinks, obese doctors and divorced marriage counselors.

Besides knowledge, we often thrust change into the arms of self-control. But self-control can be easily exhausted. That’s one of the reasons why change is hard.

People wear themselves out when they try to implement change. What many times looks like laziness can simply be exhaustion.

So, what’s the formula for successfully implementing change?

Well, to change your own behavior or the behavior of anybody else, you need to do three things – you’ve got to direct the Rider (reach the rational part), motivate the Elephant (reach the emotional part), and shape the Path (clear the way).

If you manage to do all three at once, big changes can happen even if you don’t have a lot of power and resources.

Here are the three things you have to do to successfully implement any change:

  • Direct the Rider: Provide crystal clear directions to the rational part of a human nature. The rational part of the brain is the one that deliberates, analyzes and looks into the future. It’s also called the reflective or conscious system. What often looks like resistance from the rational part is frequently just a lack of clarity. To direct the Rider, you thus have to find the bright spots in a situation and script critical moves of how you will get to the goal.
  • Motivate the Elephant: The rational part demands a tremendous amount of self-control, which comes in limited resources. That’s why laziness often seems like exhaustion. The only way for a change to last is to have an emotional drive. That’s why people’s emotional side needs to be engaged and they must believe they are competent enough to make the change. The emotional part of human nature is the part that is instinctive and feels pain and pleasure.
  • Shape the Path: What many times looks like a people problem is only a situation problem. The situation, including the surrounding environment, is called the Path. When you properly shape the Path or, in other words, tweak the environment, you make change more likely to happen.

You need to address all three.

If you reach only the Rider, but not the Elephant, you get direction without motivation. The Rider can drag the Elephant down the road for a while, but that effort can’t last long, because the Rider gets exhausted.

If the Rider isn’t sure what direction to go in, he leads the Elephant in circles. It’s called analysis paralysis. From the outside, such a situation might seem like resistance, but might be only a lack of clarity. If you want people to change, they need crystal clear directions.

The Rider needs direction and the Elephant needs motivation. And both the Rider and the Elephant need the lowest possible friction on the path to the destination. That’s how they can move quickly.

That’s how big changes can happen. Now let’s dive deeper into all three – (1) Direct the Rider, (2) Motivate the Elephant and (3) Shape the Path.

Switch - Implementing change - Book Summary

1. Properly direct the Rider, the rational part of human nature

The Rider is the rational part of a human being. He’s a thinker and a planner, striving to plot a course for a better future. He’s also a visionary, willing to make short-term sacrifices for long-term pay-offs.

But the Rider can also easily get caught in analysis paralysis, contemplation, and can see things much worse that they are.

When the Rider sees that something is going great, he doesn’t think much about it. On the other hand, when things break, the Rider focuses on the problem and immediately starts applying his problem-solving skills.

By nature, the Rider is more problem- than solution-oriented or at least very bad at seeing bright spots in challenging situations. That’s why we all tend to talk and share negative events more likely than the positive ones.

Bad is frequently much stronger than good when it comes to the rational part of a human being. Unfortunately, even success can look like a problem or a failure to an overactive Rider.

The Rider’s strengths The Rider’s weaknesses




Paralysis in uncertainty

Limited reserves of strength (discipline)

Focused on problems, not solutions

Problem – solution magnitude

That’s why the Rider needs to be properly directed. You must very precisely show the Rider where to go, how to act, and what destination to pursue. The Rider is a clever tactician, and when you give him a map with clear directions, he’ll follow it perfectly.

There are three things you can do to properly direct the Rider:

  1. Find the bright spots – Investigate what’s already working and clone it
  2. Script the critical moves – Provide crystal clear guidance with specific behaviors
  3. Point to the destination – Know where you’re going and why it’s worth it

1.1. Look for the bright spots

There are exceptions in every problematic situation or behavior. In other words, every dark situation has some bright spots. Understanding and analyzing these bright spots can prove extremely valuable.

The bright spots are a demonstration that you or any other person can behave differently under the right circumstances. It’s also an optimistic sign that things can get better if approached appropriately.

When identifying the bright spots, you want to figure out what’s working in a challenging situation and how you can do more with it. There are two questions that can help you identify the bright spots:

  1. Imagine that during the night, the problem or bad behavior you’re suffering from somehow miraculously disappears. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first small sign that the problem is gone? What would you do differently then? It’s not about describing the miracle itself, but about identifying the tangible signs (vivid signs of progress) indicating that the miracle happened.
  2. The second question goes like this: “When was the last time you saw a bit of a miracle, even if just for a short period of time? Under what circumstances are you not drinking if alcoholic, your kids obey you or you have a loving relationship with your partner?

When you’re analyzing the bright spots, the idea is to carefully replay the scene when things were working like you hoped, from your own behavior and feelings to the environment around you and interactions with other people.

The bright spots are the best guidance to what exactly needs to be done differently. Anytime you find a bright spot, your core mission is to clone it. Find what’s working and how to do more of it. That’s the first step towards a positive change.

1.1.1. Big problem, a set of small solutions

The Rider has a tendency to search for solutions that have the same magnitude as the problem. But that’s rarely how big problems are solved or how tough transitions are made successfully.

Big problems are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions over longer periods of time; sometimes over weeks and sometimes over decades.

When the Rider analyses the problem, he looks for a solution that befits the scale of the problem. That most often backfires and gets the Rider caught in analysis paralysis, looking for big‑scale changes, forgetting to identify and focus on small things that are already working and can be scaled.

There is a very important question that can help you properly direct the Rider: What’s the ratio of time you spend solving problems to the time you spend scaling success?

Make sure you have a strong beginning by focusing on the bright spots and a strong ending with a clear picture of what you want to achieve. Then get moving and don’t worry about the middle; because the middle is going to look different when you get there.

Learn to marry your long-term goals with short-term critical moves.

1.2. Script the critical moves

Ambiguity is the main enemy of change. Any change you desire to implement requires a transition from unclear directions into very concrete behaviors. In other words, to make a switch to a new behavior you must script the critical moves.

You must provide crystal clear guidance on what exactly people (or you) should start doing, stop doing or continue doing. You need to think about the specific behavior that you want to see in tough or uncertain moments.

The opposite of having a script of critical moves are unclear directions with many different options. The more options we have, even good ones, that much tougher it is to make decisions.

Decision-making is the Rider’s turf, but they need to be supervised and that’s how they tax the Rider and completely exhaust him. At some point too many choices don’t liberate but debilitate, even tyrannize the Rider.

Change is one such example. With change come uncertainty, complexity and many choices with different paths. That’s a big taxation on the Rider that paralyzes him.

The Rider can basically work only in two modes:

  • Known habits: Habits are the decisions on auto-pilot that you do routinely. You have your ways of doing things and any choice has been more or less squeezed away. That’s an easy job for the Rider, because he just follows a known pattern.
  • Unknown changes: In times of change, the auto-pilot doesn’t work anymore, because the choices proliferate. You might have too many choices or you might not even know which choices are available. That kind of uncertainty leads to decision fatigue and exhausts the Rider. When the road is uncertain, the Elephant (emotional part) takes over and wants to go back to the default path. Consequently, the change never happens.

That’s why when you want someone to behave in a different way, it’s mandatory to explain the why and exact how very clearly.

The most successful change transformations are focused on behavioral goals and that’s what you should focus on. Very precisely describing the new desired behavior.

A Rider needs to be jarred out of analysis at some point and given a script that explains how to act. Clarity dissolves resistance. The Rider needs a map – a clear starting point and a finish.

Motivate the Elephant, the emotional part of human nature

The change most often happens by speaking to people’s feelings. Almost nobody gets motivated by a 10% higher ROI. There’s a big difference between knowing how to act and actually being motivated to act.

But our first instinct is to teach and educate people, not to appeal to their feelings. When change is successfully implemented, it’s because leaders speak to the Rider (rational self) as well as to the Elephant (emotional self).

Analytical tools work best when the parameters are known, assumptions are minimal, and the future is not fuzzy. But that’s rarely the situation during a change.

Consequently, change efforts don’t happen in the analyze-think-change sequence, but rather in the see-feel-change sequence. A change usually happens when someone is presented with evidence that makes them feel something new.

It might be a disturbing look at the problem (running away from pain) or a hopeful glimpse of the solution (seeking pleasure). A change is usually initiated when something hits you on the emotional level. Period.

The Elephant’s strengths The Elephant’s weaknesses
Initiator of change

Persistence through obstacles

Wants instant gratification

Wears rose-tinted glasses

Can be quickly demoralized, needs reassurance

Hates to fail

There are three things you can do to motivate the Elephant:

  1. Find the feeling – Knowing something won’t ignite a change, feeling something will
  2. Shrink the change – Break down the change until it no longer spooks the Elephant
  3. Grow your people – Install the growth mindset and properly prepare for failure

Should you address the positive or the negative feelings?

The Rider has the ability to plan for a better future and sacrifice short-term risks for bigger long‑term gains. The Elephant, on the other hand, wants instant gratification. On top of that, the Elephant wears rose-tinted glasses.

The Elephant is very lousy at evaluating the situation or himself, because he always tends to take the rosiest possible interpretation of the facts (the opposite of the Rider).

And positive illusions pose an enormous obstacle with regard to change. With rose-tinted glasses on, it’s much harder to orientate yourself. You don’t really have a very clear picture of where you are and where you’re going. It seems like there’s no need for change.

That’s why in many critical change situations, it’s mandatory to create a sense of crisis to initiate change; or create a burning platform, in other words. The idea of a burning platform is to paint such a painful picture of the current situation that people know they have to jump into the burning sea.

The crisis most often convinces people that there’s no other option but to move. The problem is that situations that require change are rarely as dramatic as the burning platform, and they kill creativity and flexibility.

The burning platform might be useful when quick and specific action is needed. In other cases, appealing to positive emotions brings better results.

Positive emotions, on the other hand, are designed to broaden and build a repertoire of thoughts and actions. Positive emotions motivate us to get involved and learn new things. It opens your mind to new ideas.

The positive emotion of joy makes you want to play and explore or invent new activities. The positive emotion of pride after an accomplishment makes you go even after bigger goals. The consequence of positive feelings is that you’re building up resources and skills.

Even more, positive feelings encourage open minds, creativity and hope – the feelings that are really needed to make a lasting positive change.

To motivate the Elephant, you must find the right feeling. Most often it must be a positive feeling, but sometimes resorting to a negative one is the only option.

  • Negative feelings: They sharpen your focus and motivate you, but they are the same thing as putting on blinders, which kills creativity and flexibility. They might help when quick and specific action is needed.
  • Positive feelings: To solve bigger, more ambiguous problems, you need to encourage positive feelings of creativity, hope and an open mind. You need to find a way to instill hope, optimism and excitement in people.

Motivating the Elephant with the right feeling is many times also represented with the saying start with why.

Besides being motivated by positive feelings, the Elephant needs to believe that he’s capable of conquering the change. And that can be achieved only by shrinking the change or growing the people or, preferably, both.

2.1.  Shrink the change

People find it much more motivating if they’re partly finished with a very long journey than if they’re at a starting point of a much shorter one. That means a sense of progress is critical for being motivated enough to see a change through.

The Elephant is easily demoralized, spooked or derailed. When the task is too big, the Elephant will resist. That’s why the Elephant needs constant reassurance, on every step of the journey.

Make sure you remind yourself or others of what has already been conquered when it comes to the change. Don’t focus only on what’s new and different and about to come, but also on the progress that’s already been made.

If you want the Elephant to keep moving, you have to shrink the change. The Elephant hates doing things that don’t have an immediate payoff. To get the Elephant moving, you must assure it that the change or task won’t be so bad.

But once you get the Elephant moving, you can keep him moving strongly as long as constant reassurance is provided.

  1. The best way to shrink the change is to limit the investment you’re asking for
  2. Another way to shrink the change is to think of small wins that are within reach

These two ways are the best solution for engineering early success and that’s also how you engineer hope. And absolutely make all the advancements visible. You must train yourself to celebrate every incremental victory.

Hope is fuel for the Elephant. Even a small success can be extremely powerful in helping people believe in themselves.

It’s completely okay if you start really small and the first changes seem almost trivial to you. Your initial challenge is to get the Elephant moving, even if the movement is very slow in the beginning.

Because at the same time as the change is shrinking, the Elephant is growing.

2.1. Grow the people around you

One way to motivate people is to shrink the change in a way that makes people feel “big” and powerful in comparison to the challenge. The other thing you can do, instead of shrinking the change, is to grow people; and the best way is to do both.

When you build people up, they develop the strength to act. The best way to grow people is to influence their identity.

Identity shift

When people make choices, they rely on two basic models of decision-making:

  • Consequences model: The consequences model assumes that when you make a decision, you weigh the costs and benefits of options, and choose the option that maximizes your satisfaction. But that kind of a model is more appealing to the Rider, because it’s the rational analytical approach to decision‑making.
  • Identity model: In the identity model, you ask yourself three questions when you’re making decisions. Who am I? What kind of a situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? There’s no calculation of costs and benefits. That’s how the Elephant makes the decisions; and the Elephant is much stronger in this regard.

To motivate the Elephant, you must ask yourself how you can change a matter of identity, rather than a matter of consequences.  You need to find a way to cultivate an identity that leads to the positive change you want to achieve.

You should inspire yourself or others to be the kind of person who would make this particular change. You must inspire such self-image in you or others.

The good news is that people are receptive to developing new identities and that new identities grow from small positive beginnings. If you show people why it’s worth caring for something new, they will make the caring part of their new self-image.

The bad news, on the other hand, is that a new identity can take root quickly, but living up to it is awfully hard. The hard part leads to the fact that every change needs to go through a period of failure and apathy.

2.1.1. Create the expectation of failure

Every quest, including going through change, involves failure. There’s no way to learn new things without failure. And there is no change without learning first.

That means you can’t learn to be an inventor, scientist, blogger, manager or anything else, without failing. You also can’t develop new products, organize new services or penetrate new markets without failing.

We all know that, but the big problem is that the Elephant hates to fail even if there’s no situation that’s 100% failure.

The answer to this problem is that you must create the expectation of failure. Not the failure of the change itself, but failure on the path to the final destination. And by far the best way to deal with failure is to possess the growth mindset.

When you know that everything is hard before it’s easy and that you can improve at anything, it’s much easier to deal with failure. It also makes sense to set up routines that allow the most chances to learn and improve.

The best teams are always brutally focused on learning quickly. In every failure, the best teams see an opportunity to learn and grow.

Every change requires you to include a period of learning, empowered by the growth mindset.

Almost every project looks like a failure in the middle. If the team manages to persist through angst and doubt, sooner or later a momentum of growth and fast progress takes place.

We will struggle, we will fail, we will be knocked down, but throughout we’ll get better and we’ll succeed in the end. That’s the right mindset to embrace when it comes to change.

Have a mission bigger than problems

3. Shape the Path

We all tend to make the error of judging people’s behavior solely based on the way they are, rather than to see the situation they are in. Very often the situation is the one that leads people to a certain behavior.

A behavior is a result of an individual’s personality and the environment they are in. Thus, many times what looks like a people problem, is a situation problem.

By changing the environment, you can make change easier for people. You make the journey to a new destination a lot easier.

By shaping the path, you create a steep downhill slope and give yourself or other people a push. You remove the friction from the trail and put signs on the road that they’re getting close to the goal.

There are three ways how you can shape the path:

  1. Tweak the environment – Change the situation, make the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder
  2. Build habits – Look for ways to encourage positive habits
  3. Rally the Herd – Behavior is contagious, help it spread

The good news is that no matter your position, you always have some control over the situation.

3.1. Learn to manipulate discipline with transaction costs

Tweaking the environment or shaping the path simply means that you make the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder. You play with transaction costs, because environmental tweaks beat self-control every time.

By tweaking the environment, you basically outsmart yourself.

Think of what you can do at three points of the change situation: pre-event, event and post-event, to tweak the environment in your favor, to shape the path in a way that will lead you to perform positive habits.

Make the old behavior harder, and the new behavior easier at all three points.

3.2. Build healthy habits

Habits are behavioral autopilots. New habits present the essence of every change. The good (and the bad news) about habits is that they’re contagious. They’re incredibly sensitive to the environment and culture, because people want to fit in.

Habits are not only contagious, they also get formed inevitably, whether intentionally or not. That’s why they’re so powerful. The problem occurs because many of the habits are created unwittingly and don’t really support your mission.

That’s why habits must be intentionally created, based on two factors:

  1. The habit needs to advance the mission
  2. The habit needs to be relatively easy to embrace. If the habit is too hard to embrace, it creates its own independent change problem.

One way to encourage new habits is by installing action triggers. Action triggers encourage you to execute a certain action when you encounter a certain situational trigger (also called a reminder).

They won’t make you do things you truly don’t want to do, but they have a profound power to motivate people to do things they know they need to do.

The second way to encourage new habits are checklists. Checklists are very powerful at educating people and they show people an ironclad way of doing something new. They help people avoid blind spots in a complex environment.

Write down habits that are easy to perform. Install action triggers for those habits. Help people follow them with checklists and watch the change grow.

3.3. Rally the Herd

In ambiguous situations, we look at other people around us for cues on how to behave. It’s also called social pressure. Behavior is contagious at the individual, group and social level.

For example, you change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you.

That’s why obesity is contagious. Drinking is also contagious. And the list of socially contagious things goes on and on, from marriage to shaking hands and investing in different companies.

When you’re leading the Elephant on an unfamiliar path, his tendency will be to follow the Herd. That’s why your job is to rally a Herd that will support your mission. Because in the end, social signals from the Herd can either guarantee a change effort or doom it.

There are several things you can do to rally the right Herd:

  1. First, you have to get all the reformers together. They need free space and time to coordinate new behaviors and goals outside of the resistance gaze. You need to create a free space for discussion and new identity to grow.
  2. Counterintuitively, you must let the short-term organizational identity conflict happen. For a short time, a struggle between us (reformers) and them (status quo) usually takes place. Reformers versus the rest. That’s inevitable, at least in the short-term. It’s part of organizational molding. And your job is to support the reformers.
  3. In the end, rally the Herd. Bring more right people together. Communicate with everyone in the organization, so that you’re on the same boat. Build good habits, create action triggers. When your Herd embraces the right behavior, publicize it. Praise individual’s new behaviors. Make sure the reformers find one another and spread the new identity across your organization like a virus.

4. Keep the switch going

The final question is how to keep the switch going. Absolutely not with punishment. If you use punishment too frequently, it’s only a question of time when the Elephant will see you as a splinter.

A much better approach is to reward each tiny step done towards the new behavior and the new destination. Finding the bright spots and rewarding them is the way to go.

Start by praising every small act, every time. You need to constantly notice and reinforce positive behavior. Reinforcement is the secret to getting towards the final destination step by step.

The main problem is that we are all terrible reinforcers, because we are quicker to grumble than to praise. Thus, we all have to learn to praise more often.

Remember, change isn’t an event, it’s a process. Every process takes time, but the good thing about the process of change is that once the change starts, it seems to feed on itself.

It’s a snowball effect based on the mere exposure effect – the more you are exposed to something, the more you like it.

Also, cognitive dissonance works in your favor when it comes to change. People don’t like to think in one way and behave in another. They want their thinking and action to be congruent.

That means when people start acting in a new way, it becomes more difficult for them to cognitively dislike their new destination. Because they’re acting in a certain new way, they start thinking in a new way and, in the end, shape a new identity that’s aligned with an organizational new mission. That strongly reinforces the new way of doing things.

But remember, it all starts and keeps going with praise.

9 steps to make the switch and implement change when change is hard

That’s it, now you have the formula for implementing change in difficult, and not-so-difficult situations.

Now you have to formulate how to implement the change when it comes to you, the people you care about or the organization where you work.

As a summary of the summary, here are 9 steps for making the switch and implementing change when change is really hard:

Direct the Rider

  1. Find the bright spots – Investigate what’s already working and clone it
  2. Script the critical moves – Provide crystal clear guidance with specific behaviors
  3. Point to the destination – Know where you’re going and why it’s worth it

Motivate the Elephant

  1. Find the feeling – Knowing something won’t ignite a change, feeling something will
  2. Shrink the change – Break down the change until it no longer spooks the Elephant
  3. Grow your people – Install the growth mindset and properly prepare for failure

Shape the Path

  1. Tweak the environment – When the situation changes, the behavior changes
  2. Build habits – Look for ways to encourage new habits with triggers and checklists
  3. Rally the Herd – Behavior is contagious, so help it spread

If you liked the summary, I absolutely recommend you read the book. It presents many different case studies and successful transitions for each element of change.

Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant and Shape the Path. A simple formula to follow when it’s time to change things.