Book Review: Chip & Dan Heath’s Switch

Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard was a perfect summer read. Not so much in the trashy beach novel
(not in that way at all) but in the “hey, it’s summer and work is slightly less
crazy because most of our students have gone home for three months, so let’s
assess this year and plan ways to make next year better” kind of way.

My copy of the book is full if highlights and my note taking app is riddled with ideas
to improve our Fitness Class participation, programming board, student organization leadership training, financial procedures, and school spirit. If this
book helps with even one of those things it’ll be worth all 30 pages.
(And even then 50 pages are summaries, notes, and resources!)

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

This book took me a few months to read completely – not because it’s difficult, but because I insisted on juggling several different books at once. When a colleague suggested a summer book club, I was quick to recommend this one; at the very least it would motivate me to finish the two-thirds I had left. As with most things, I’m thankful for the detour life threw at me — this was a perfect book to discuss.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath (aka the Heath Brothers) propose that there are three elements that need to work in harmony in order to advance change: the rider, the elephant, and the path. In less massaged terms – the mind, heart, and situation. Depending on the way you make decisions you are likely to identify with the rider (rational, reflective, deliberate, long-term thinking) or the elephant (emotional, instinctive, short-term thinking) and consequently, how you approach problem solving. That said…

The world doesn’t always want what you want. You want to change how others are acting, but they get a vote. You can cajole, influence, inspire, and motivate – but sometimes an employee would rather lose his job than move out of his comfortable routines. – 18

No matter which group or situation you are trying to make changes to, the Heath Brothers teach that you will get there by making three things happen – you’ll direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path. For more information about what role the rider, elephant and path have to do with creating and sustaining change, read this Switch One Page Overview.

Directing the rider comes naturally for me – I can make maps, outlines, and checklists until the cows come home – but it’s not enough to make change happen. I’ve tried it. I’m finishing my first year in a new position and have tried this over and over without improvement. No matter how many bullet points my emails have – they’re not inspiring the kind of action I’m asking for. Because of this, most of the wisdom I gleaned came from the last two-thirds of the book. (This probably explains why I put the book down for two months after reading the first third – that part made perfect sense to me).. Discussing this book with colleagues was the other real eye-opener for me. Time and time again I’m amazed at how different people think and approach problems – and how narrow-minded I can be in my own way of thinking. I’m grateful to all of the elephants in the room who helped me see a bigger picture.

A few ideas I’ve gleaned from Switch: 

Problem: Students are not requesting Student Organization Funding or spending the full amount they’ve requested.

  • Tweaking the environment is about making the right behavior a little bit easier and the wrong behavior a little bit harder.
  • In situations where your herd has embraced the right behavior –
    publicize the names and events of organizations who have followed the process.
  • Challenge organization treasurers to submit 2 requests per funding cycle.
  • Rally the support of others who in turn could influence those you hope to sway. Educate advisors on the process and the amount of money left unclaimed each year.
  • Create a visual display to trigger an emotional response: Show a pile of monopoly money to be allotted vs already allotted. Include a display at the Fall Involvement fair highlighting the funds allotted this year and organizations/events who received it. Include a checklist/packet for every organization for every organization who participates in the Involvement Fair.
  • Find the Bright Spots: Create special gold stars/badges for tales of organization who have won Celebrating Leadership Awards and groups who have received Allocation Board Funds.

Problem: Attendance at fitness classes is low and inconsistent, despite surveys and varied class offerings and times. 

  • Script the Critical Moves: Punch Cards: Attend 5 classes, get X incentive. Based on research from Switch, we’ll preload your card with two free punches. Attend 10 classes, get Y. We’ll give you another free punch after 5. 20 punches = Super Cool Prize.
  • Create a shop from our prizes (water bottles, drawstring bags, Yoga and Zumba gear). Feature a display in the window of our office, dance studio, fitness center.
  • Create an action trigger: Partner with campus dining to offer specials: Yoga at 7 AM, half price smoothie at 8 AM. Zumba at 8 PM? Half price smoothie at 9. Valid for anyone who participates in fitness classes that day. 

There are a lot more highlights and bullet points where that came from – but hopefully it’s enough of a taste to spark your interest to read the Switch too. The examples in the book range from CEOs, teachers, social workers, nurses, middle managers, and so many other situations – you’re sure to find a few nuggets that will inspire you to create change within your realm of influence – and perhaps beyond!

Have you read Switch? What changes were you inspired to make? What is on your summer reading list? I’d love to chat more with others who have read (or would like to read) Switch. 



  1. Lisa Endersby (@lmendersby) says:

    I loved this book and still refer to its ideas in my daily practice. I often go back to the idea of ‘shrinking the change’. For the rider, it’s easier to logically and methodically manage a change that is finite with clear outcomes. For the elephant (and I’ve come up against many elephant sized obstacles to change in the past), shrinking the change to something manageable helps to not overwhelm a person, a department or an entire organization with something so new that its criteria for success are up on a too high pedestal with a constantly moving target. In my new role, I’m thinking a lot about change (and being thrust into a lot of it as well), so I really appreciate the emphasis the book puts on the people side of change. Managing expectations is so key to this process, both about the change itself and people’s assumed abilities to do the work needed to make the change happen. This book reaffirms my ‘people first’ approach to leadership. Keep reading and writing Becca – I hope we get the chance to do another book chat soon!

  2. Amma says:

    The idea of adding this to my constant stack of books excites me. Like you, finishing up the first year at a new institution has opened my eyes to the difficulty of implementing change on a small campus. But I always welcome new ideas on strategies to combat that reluctant attitude, and this sounds like it could fit the bill.
    Thanks for the recommendation, and we are long overdue to trade some notes! Perhaps in early July, after our orientation frenzy dies down?

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