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"Switch" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

I recently read Switch: How to change when change is hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Here is my one-sentence review: The book is so good I feel sorry the authors have to sell it at the same price as the other hardcovers out there. If that's enough to convince you to give it a try, great. Otherwise, read on.

Some of you might have heard of the Heath brothers already: we owe them another bestseller, Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die, which I haven't read but has received very positive media coverage; Chip Heath is a professor at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and Dan Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University's Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship. Switch is said to have debuted at #1 on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller lists, and deserves all the acclaim heaped on it.

The book builds upon an idea found in The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (another bestseller), specifically, that "[t]he mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement." (This quote is from the chapter-by-chapter summary on the Happiness Hypothesis website.)

The Heath brothers augment this framework by contributing a step-by-step, concrete approach to change based on the concepts of the rider and the elephant. The one-page summary is available at the end of the book and on the website after registration to the authors' email list; registration provides access to a significant amount of free resources for both Made to Stick and Switch. Here is the framework in a nutshell (the one-page summary has more details and explains the terminology):

  • Direct the rider: follow 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.  

If you haven't read the book, those expressions won't make a lot of sense. (For instance, "script the critical moves" refers to the fact that you have to remove ambiguity in order to get people to act. The authors use the example of a weight-loss campaign in West Virginia. Instead of just telling residents to lose weight, which would have been confusing and counter-productive because the goal can be achieved in so many different ways, researchers at West Virginia University orchestrated a media campaign with the message that Americans should drink low-fat milk instead of whole milk. [Apparently there is as much saturated fat in a glass of whole milk as in five strips of bacon.] The instructions were simple, easy to remember and truly impacted the residents' buying habits at the grocery store. Buy low-fat instead of whole milk; no grey area allowed.)

But the fact is, if the book could be summarized in one page, it would make for a good magazine article but not a very interesting book. Switch's appeal lies not in its quick three-step formula, but in the abundance of real-life stories the authors share to make their point. It wouldn't do justice to the examples, and the extended treatment they receive in the book, to try to summarize them in a sentence or two here, so I'll just enumerate a few with page numbers, for those of you who are interested: how scripting critical parenting moves helped reform 80% of child abusers taking part in a study - twice as much as traditional anger management classes (p.63-67), how a Teach for America teacher turned a class of underperforming first-graders, who were lacking basic kindergarten skills when the school year began, into thriving "third-graders" by the time it ended (p.73-76), how returning to a drug-free environment helped almost all Vietnam war veterans who had become addicted during their tour quit using drugs, so that the epidemic the US government feared did not happen (p.203-207).  

The field of operations research and management science is even mentioned briefly when the authors describe the prowess of Gerard Cachon, then editor-in-chief of the Manufacturing and Service Operations Management journal, as he "rallied the herd" and succeeded in having most referees hand in their reviews substantially faster than before (p.229-32). 

(As a side note, thanks to the book, I learned about Clocky, "a clock for people who have trouble getting out of bed. When the snooze bar is pressed, Clocky rolls off the table and finds a hiding spot, a new one every day." I loved the idea, and it came as no surprise that the inventor, a fellow MIT alumna, had studied at the Media Lab. You can see pictures of Clocky by following the link above.)

Switch is extremely well-researched and draws anecdotes from many fields, from social services to health care to management, which will make it appealing to a wide range of readers. It is, without a doubt, one of the best business books of 2010 so far.


Guess I need to bike over to the Barnes and Noble then.

Hey Aurelie! Glad you like Clocky! We enjoyed Switch, too. You should also check out Tocky, Clocky's high-tech sibling.

Thanks for the praise!
Nanda Home

Thanks for the info, Nanda! I love the idea of Clocky. It's just brilliant. Tocky seems great too.

The Heath brothers have an article in the July/August issue of Experience Life magazine, which provides a great introduction to their book. A sidebar lists the following counter-intuitive findings of their research.
Surprise 1: What looks like resistance is often lack of clarity.
Surprise 2: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.
Surprise 3: What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.
More at

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