Book review: Switch (how to make change happen)

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard

By Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Random House


Could all the agents of change please raise your right hand and repeat after me.

We, the agents of change, do solemnly swear to never again speak of burning platforms.

Whenever there’s talk of change, there’s always someone who suggests finding or creating a burning platform.  I’ve made the suggestion more than once and in the not so distant past.

The thinking goes that a burning platform forces everyone to take notice, take action and embrace the change. The sky is falling, the end is near and change is not optional or up for discussion.

But let’s take a moment and reflect on where this business cliché originated. Back in 1988 on an oil platform out in the North Sea, a gas leak set off an explosion that ripped the rig in two. Survivors of the blast had two choices and both were bad. Plunge 46 metres into a fiery sea and risk drowning or take your chances and probably burn to death on a disintegrating rig.

After being rescued by NATO and the Royal Air Force, a superintendent on the platform told a reporter “it was fry or jump, so I jumped.”

So when agents of change call for a burning platform, they want to scare their coworkers into jumping or frying. Does it actually work?

“To create a burning platform is to paint such a gloomy picture of the current state of things that employees can’t help but jump into the fiery sea,” say authors Chip and Dan Heath. “In short, the ‘burning platform’ is a great, uplifting tale for your people. Team, let’s choose a dangerous plunge into the ocean over getting burned to death! Now get back to work!”

If you need quick, decisive and specific course corrections then whipping up negative emotions like fear and panic might help, say the Heath brothers. But if you need creativity, flexibility and ingenuity to drive a sustainable change that sticks, burning platforms do more harm than good.

“Most of the big problems we encounter in organiations or society are ambiguous and evolving,” say the Heaths. “They don’t look like burning platform situations where we need people to buckle down and execute a hard but well-understood game plan. To solver bigger, more ambigiuous problems, we need to encourage open minds, creativity and hope.”

You’ll get that by evoking positive emotions that broaden and build interest in changing. We get interested. We start investigating. We get involved and we buy in.

According to the Heaths, we’re literally of two minds when it comes to change. There’s our instinctive emotional side and our deliberating and analyzing rational side.

The Heaths borrow from University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt who says the emotional side is the Elephant and the rational side is the Rider. When the Elephant and Rider disagree on which way to go, the Elephant wins every time even though it’s the Rider in the saddle.

“When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs,” explain the Heaths. “Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.”

But let’s not be too hard on our inner Elephant, which has enormous strength if you can harness it. Emotion – love and compassion, sympathy and loyalty — is the Elephant’s turf. And it’s that emotion-fuelled energy and drive that gets things done while our inner Rider drifts off into overanalyzing, overthinking and navel gazing.

So good luck with your change initiative if you’re stuck with a reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider. The trick is to get both moving together by giving crystal clear directions to the Rider, motivating the Elephant and shaping the path to success.

Like their earlier bestseller Made to Stick, this is a great read and you’ll learn about the power of bright spots (clone what’s working rather than fixate on what’s not), how to script critical moves instead of burying us with abstract big picture talk, shrink the change and at the same time grow your people, and change situations to change people’s behaviour.  Blame the situation and not the people if your change initiative has gone off the rails.

And anyone who says burning platform with a straight face is hereby ordered to spend a weekend with The Switch.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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