Chip and Dan Heath on How to Make a Switch

By: Interview by Mark Athitakis

Plenty of organizations avoid addressing problems because they seem too big. Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Switch, have little patience for that kind of thinking. Simple appeals to our emotional and rational selves, they argue, can result in amazing transformations.

The back pages of Chip and Dan Heath's new book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, include a list of predicaments that organizations often face: "People don't see the need to change." "People simply aren't motivated to change." "I know what I should be doing, but I'm not doing it." "It's just too much."

Sound familiar?

In Switch, the brothers and bestselling authors—Chip is a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, and Dan is a senior fellow at Duke's Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship—argue that even the biggest problems can be addressed by thinking of them as balancing acts. Everybody has an "Elephant" side: our emotional, gratification-craving selves. We also have a "Rider" side: our rational, process-oriented selves. Savvy leadership involves identifying the aspects of the Rider and the Elephant that require attention and then "shaping the path" toward more solutions and less complaining and evasion.

"Ideally a mission statement would help us sort through the choices, but most statements are vague to the point of meaninglessness.—Chip Heath

Like the Heaths' previous book, 2007's Made to Stick, Switch is built on real-world examples of cases where their research has been effectively put to use. Throughout, small moves lead to big changes. A hospital drastically reduced the rate at which nurses distributed the incorrect medications by respecting their need to focus on their job. A used couch helped a high-school history teacher get problem students to get to class early. A pile of gloves helped a corporation launch a smarter, more efficient procurement strategy.

The Heaths spoke with Associations Now about how to get the tricky process of change started, what roadblocks the Rider and Elephant need to navigate around, and how making a switch applies to associations.

Associations Now: A lot of associations seem to suffer from the decision paralysis that you talk about in Switch. What creates that mindset?

Online Extra: Can Social Media Help You Make a Switch?
Associations Now: A lot of people talk about how important it is to embrace the web and social media to promote change efforts and get large groups of people to move in the same way. But it doesn't come up much in Switch. Do you have any thoughts about what the internet and web technology can do to help promote change efforts?

Chip Heath: Technologies are useful for particular things. But Apple, when they were introducing their iPod, didn't say, "We need to be on the web," or whatever form of social networking that they had back then. They created earbuds that were very distinctive. Most earphones in those days were black or gray, and they created these white earbuds. And all of a sudden, you look around and you see other people with these white earbuds, and that's a signal that you're listening to an Apple iPod, and you're cool and you're hip.

Don't fall in love with social media because it's social media and it's the new hot technology. Don't feel like you have to be there just because that's what people are talking about. Think about it as a way of creating your version of a white earbud. You're doing hundreds of things in your conferences—Dan was talking about the way that you introduce and thank people during your conferences—and that's a way of creating a social norm that doesn't involve a Facebook page. But if you can use the Facebook page and the Twitter feed to reinforce behaviors that you really want, that's going to be even more powerful. But these are just technologies. The overall goal is letting people know what the right thing to do is, and to look around and see how many other people are already doing those things.

Chip Heath: Our brain has brilliant analytical capacity, but the dark side of that is that we often overanalyze and overthink and spin our wheels. Too many choices leads to decision paralysis. Ideally a mission statement would help us sort through the choices, but most statements are vague to the point of meaninglessness. You know: We want to "grow the field,"  "grow the industry," and be "very responsive" to our association members. That doesn't help guide what to do tomorrow or in planning our next conference. A few years ago the FDA revamped the food pyramid to get Americans to eat healthier. The final product was a pyramid with vivid bands of color, and it looks very pretty but it gives absolutely no concrete direction. They would have been more likely to change how people act if they'd given us a few concrete rules—e.g., "Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal." A lot of mission statements are very much like the food pyramid.  But if we want to spark real change, we need to escape food-pyramid land.

You write that "we need to switch from archaeological problem-solving to bright-spot evangelizing"—finding and emphasizing success stories. What reignites that spark among people in an organization to stop focusing on problems and start looking at the positives?

Dan Heath: It's simply human nature to focus on problems. There's a classic survey in psychology that concludes "bad is stronger than good." For instance, if you show people two photos, they'll focus on the one that shows a more negative scene. If people learn information about their peers, they'll tend to weigh the negative info more heavily and remember it longer. When we're asked to reflect on our own lives, we tend to bring up the negative stuff more often. So this is a powerful force, and when we're in a situation of change, it leads us to dwell on all the things that are broken. There's a guy in the book named Jerry Sternin, who's one of our heroes. He calls that kind of obsession with the complexity of the situation TBU—true but useless.

In most "after-action reviews," for example, people agonize about what didn't work. But we should start agonizing about the successes. In your association, ask yourself, "What was our best-attended conference in the last several years?" Do you know why? Study it so you can clone it.

What were your three best-attended breakouts at your last conference? Why? And what were the most popular articles that ran in your magazine last quarter? What were your most successful membership campaigns? Use the same rigor that we use to try to solve problems, but instead apply it to the victories. Reverse engineer your "bright spots" so that you can reproduce them. Often we've solved our own problems without recognizing it.

How do you build a strategy to say, "We're an organization that is going to look at our bright spots, and then we're going to act from there?"

Chip Heath: The most direct route to changing a culture is very often changing a routine.  Let's take a different culture-change situation.  One group of people in Switch was trying to overcome their organizational culture of spending too much time in meetings. So they started a new routine: They would have one coordination meeting at the beginning of the day, at the same place at the same time for 20 minutes.  And most importantly, they did it standing up, which provided a disincentive for people holding the floor for too long. 

"The truly great members of any profession are those who step outside their organization role and do something for the whole industry."—Dan Heath

So if you're trying to create a culture of focusing on the bright spots, I would think of terms of building a routine.  Every time somebody starts a true-but-useless analysis of, "Oh, we've got a problem here and a problem here," perhaps explicitly say, "Have we done our bright-spots analysis in this situation? We're talking about problems that we've had with attendance, but have we analyzed the last three conferences where we had great attendance?" The goal is to apply your analytical skill not toward moaning and groaning over problems, but toward unpacking what it was that made you successful in the past.

In Switch you discuss how installing transparency in an editorial process helped speed the work of a peer-reviewed journal. Part of it involved letting people know who the bottleneck is, because nobody wants to be the bottleneck. Do you have to worry about making people feel publicly guilt-tripped to change? In some associations, there might be an attitude of, "I know what the mission is—I don't need to be told or directed about that." 

Chip Heath: The editor we discuss wasn't putting a guilt trip on anyone.  He was just showing people how fast other people were turning in their reviews. I think one of the deep insights about change is that we as people are very herd-focused animals. We are responsive to what other people around us are doing. So without the editor having to say, "I'm going to be your parent or your mom and tell you how quickly you ought to do this," he just shows you what other people are doing. That's enough motivation in the first place.

We Knew Them When ...
The Heath brothers wrote the cover story for the February 2007 issue of Associations Now, "Sticking to It."

Dan Heath: Chip's point about herd behavior is crucial for associations. I wonder if associations are doing a good enough job of publicizing the things that are going right. For instance, there's not an association in the world who wouldn't agree with the statement, "Some of my members are a lot more helpful than others." You should make it a priority to make sure that all your members know what your best members are doing.  This has a couple of strong benefits. Number one, people may simply not know what kinds of things they could do. You may be, in a sense, educating the Riders of your other members about what they can do to help you.

The second thing is you're helping to establish an identity. Many associations, of course, are built on proud, professional identities. Your members need to gain the sense that to be a great professional it's not enough to stay in your own silo—the truly great members of any profession are those who step outside their organization role and do something for the whole industry. That identity can be a very powerful motivator.

Members can sometimes feel bombarded by how much an association tells them about what they're doing. How strategic do you have to be about not just the changes you pursue, but how you let people know about them?

Chip Heath: As an association leader, you may feel the need to discuss and tackle every single problem in the industry. But if you only tackled one problem, one major problem, this year in your industry and made some substantial progress on that, that would be a really good year. And if you put five of those years back to back, you would have tackled five major problems in your industry. So don't diffuse your attention across a dozen really important things. Pick the one that's most important. If I'm giving somebody diet advice, I could harangue them about lots of things: "Eat more fruits and vegetables!  Reduce your sugar intake!  Watch your salt!  Eat more protein, but less fatty protein." Or I could just say, "Here's the most important thing you should do this year." For example, the typical American could lose 10 pounds in a year by giving up one sugared soft drink a day. And if I spend a year focusing just on eliminating that soft drink, that would be a good year for the diet.

So it's not so much a matter of the quantity of the messages that you're sending out, but being smarter about how these messages are phrased and how clear they're made to people.

Dan Heath: That's right. And one more thought. I've attended enough association meetings to observe that, often, the "communication" is a series of thank yous. "Thank you to John Smith for his work on the such-and-such committee." That's a kind thing to say, and the thank you is probably well-deserved, but it's wasting a chance to establish a social norm. 

What we need to know is, what exactly did John do and how? What challenges did he overcome? He needs to be praised for what he did rather than just being a name on a PowerPoint slide. It's just like aerobics class—you learn what to do by watching other people. If I hear what John did, I might realize, Hey, I can help with that too. It's not just a matter of praising names. It's a matter of establishing norms.

Chip and Dan Heath are columnists for Fast Company and the authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Their new book is Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Visit their website at

Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Interview by Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.