To succeed with change, tap into the power of the mind

Ultimately, all change efforts boil down to the same mission: can you get people to start behaving in a new way? For individual’s behavior to change, you’ve got to influence not only their environment but their hearts and minds. – Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip & Dan Heath

In the past couple of years I’ve read widely in the area of behavioral economics.  Insights from this field can be applied to a wide range of challenges from the design of software, policy, communications, services, organizations, and change. And so I was delighted when reading Dan and Chip Heath’s book on change, Switch, to see them apply the new theories of the brain to the challenge of change.

Whether it’s trying to change our own habits, the habits of a team, or the habits of an organization the people who succeed in effecting change, whether through design, intuition, or by accident, tap into the power of how the mind actually works. And much of that power resides in understanding the tension between the Elephant and the Rider.

The analogy of the Elephant and the Rider used in Switch reveals the power emotion exerts over our behavior and captures the tension between the emotional and rational sides of our brains.

Motivate the Elephant – our emotional brain

The conscious part of our mind (the rider) is like the tip of an iceberg, dwarfed by the remainder (the elephant) that operates outside our conscious awareness. Both because we’ve been seduced by the illusion of homo economicus and because the elephant is hard to measure and study, we’ve neglected the importance of the elephant when designing for lasting change. And yet, for change that sticks, we need to engage the elephant.

power of the mind

According to John Kotter, “people change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” In other words, rather than analyze-think-change (targeting the rider) we need a see-feel-change approach (targeting the elephant). The heart of change is emotion.

So what exactly is the elephant? The elephant:

  • Consists of gut feelings, emotions, and intuitions.
  • Is the source of our energy & passion.
  • Gets things done.
  • Has ingrained habits that are tough to change.
  • Really, really hates to fail.
  • Needs motivation to act.
  • Is easily demoralized, spooked, and derailed.
  • Hungers for instant gratification.

In a change effort, because we want to harness the elephant’s energy and power for action, we need strategies to motivate the elephant, give it confidence, and keep it moving forward along the path set out by the rider. You can do this either by shrinking the change or growing people:

  • Forget facts and figures, they’ll never convince the elephant. Instead, make it visceral, make it emotional. Use anecdotes, stories, direct experiences, or imagery.
  • Provide a compelling, clear, and concrete vision of the desired end stage.
  • Don’t get caught up analyzing the source of the problem. To the elephant, root causes are true but useless.
  • Get them started on the path by asking for something small.
  • Provide reassurance, even for the very first step.
  • Set micro milestones. With each milestone, the elephant feels less scared and less reluctant because they’re succeeding.
  • Elephants wander. Watch for triggers that cause it to wander, then lead it back.
  • Although elephants hate to fail, if you create the expectation of failure as part of learning and growth, you reassure the elephant.
  • Elephants have a herd mindset. Cultivate a sense of identity –  a tribe and cause the elephant can believe in.  

Direct the Rider – our rational brain

The rider is the conscious part of our brain. Perched on top of the elephant, the rider holds the reigns and seems to be in control. But when it comes to a  disagreement, the tiny rider is no match for the massive elephant. And the bigger the change, the harder it is for the rider to steer the elephant. 

When the elephant rambles off course, the rider explains away the behavior of the elephant by spinning a story about why the elephant behaved the way it did – a confabulation which may bear little resemblance to what actually happened.

So what exactly is the rider? The rider:

  • Is a thinker and a planner that looks into the future.
  • Advises the elephant and helps it to make better choices. But when push comes to shove, caves to the elephant’s greater strength unless it’s able to distract the elephant.
  • Creates stories to justify and rationalize the actions (decisions) of the elephant.
  • Loves to contemplate, obsess, and overanalyze.
  • Focuses on problems rather than bright spots.
  • Often thinks about what’s easy to think about, rather than what’s right to think about.
  • Spins its wheels, so tends to lead elephant in circles.
  • Needs to remain vigilant to keep the elephant on course until new habits replace the old.
  • Tires easily (only works optimally about four hours a day).

In a change effort, because the rider is so easily lead around by the elephant, we need strategies to keep it steering in the right direction and to arm the rider for its ongoing struggles with the elephant:

  • Point the rider to its destination (this is where a compelling vision and BHAGs are so powerful).
  • Don’t overwhelm the rider, it has limited resources and is easily exhausted in its struggles with the elephant. Carefully focus it on what’s most important.
  • Script critical moves (clear policies & guidelines, stop doing/start doing scripts, quick references).
  • Be on the lookout for the rider spinning tales and making excuses for what the elephant has done (“I don’t have time…” “it’s too slow…” “I need it at my fingertips…”).
  • Teach the rider strategies to recognize when the elephant is getting the upper hand by developing emotional intelligence. Think of emotional intelligence is a skillful rider who is able to distract the elephant.
  • Develop social intelligence. Think of social intelligence is a skillful rider who is able to reach the elephants of those around them.

Shape the path – modify the environment

Everything has underlying structure.  Structure can be physical (an office, an interface, an online community, a city). Or nonphysical  (plot of a novel, flow of a process, culture of an organization, measures and incentives).

We make different choices in a cafeteria based on how the food is displayed, the order it’s displayed in, the choice of food offered, price, and the ambience of the seating area. We behave differently on Facebook than when using Outlook at work. Yet due to the fundamental attribution error we often ignore the structural forces that shape behavior, attributing behavior to the way people are rather than to the situation they’re in. What may look like a people problem is often a situation problem.

So what exactly is the path? The path:

  • Consists of the structural forces surrounding the changes we’re trying to effect.
  • Exerts pull to attract or push to compel.
  • Is shaped by social networks.
  • Is subject to three degrees of influence.
  • Influences choices and actions.
  • Reinforces or deters habits.

The challenge is to shape the path of least resistance to be the one that leads to the change you want to effect:

  • Tweak the environment to make the right behaviors easier and the wrong behaviors harder.
  • Provide physical or virtual spaces (communities, meeting rooms, project spaces, coffee corners) that attract.
  • Provide checklists to show the way and help build habits.
  • Set triggers to create instant habits (do x when y happens). For example, share a story about great customer service at the beginning of every team meeting. Blog action items or key learnings immediately following a meeting.
  • Apply principles of social influence. For example, make progress visible using gauges, thermometers, or other visualizations.
  • Rally the support of champions who could in turn influence others. 
  • Craft language to build tribes and shape culture such as the core values Netflix rallies around or the design principles that guide decision making such as the ten principles that contribute to a Googley user experience.
  • Build momentum by structuring a series of smaller successes on the way to a larger goal.

In my next post, I’ll apply the framework from Switch to two different types of change efforts – one personal and one organizational.

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    About Joyce Hostyn

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