Switch: When a Book Changes your Elephant Side

Switch: When a Book Changes your Elephant Side
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Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch published in 2010 by Random House became one of New York Times’ bestseller. Besides this book, they have also written other two New York Times bestseller; Decisive and Made to Stick. Chip is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business and his brother Dan is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center. Both brothers have a strong background in business and entrepreneurship. Switch is a compelling, well-written and story-driven narrative in which Chip and Dan Heath have analyzed upon the true meaning of “change”, and how to cope and create a positive outcome of situations. The Heath brothers guide the readers in 305 pages on how to deal with change in a professional and personal situation of life. They demonstrate how emotions, intentions, and feelings can be powerful in a crucial and pivotal moment when making a rational decision. The pendulum can move towards the right or wrong direction.

Switch is a book that goes beyond the readers’ expectations. It is a helpful and practical resource that can be useful for businessmen, businesswomen, mothers, sale representatives, students, leaders, followers, housewives, etc. The Heath brothers explore the deepest essences of the human being behavior without having to use in-depth theories and rigid structures. They use great implements influenced by scientific skills and real life events. The book nurtures the concept that if someone wants to change behavior, they should “direct the rider, motivate the elephant and shape the path” (19).

This concept of how change can be positive is the outstanding and remarkable secret that makes this book appealing to any audience. The book is directed to an audience that is craving for change, yearning for a better way to balance emotions and rational sides in predicted or unpredicted environments. The Heath warn the readers that change is harder than what one expects. However, if we can align the elephant, the rider and the path all together, “dramatic change can happen even if you don’t have lots of power or resources behind you” (19).

The book is easy to digest because the authors have divided the material into three components: “Direct the rider”, “Motivate the Elephant” and “Shape the Path”. Each section gives the readers suggestions, strategies, and approaches for coping with change and ideally succeeding within that change. For a communicator, a consultant, and a public relation practitioner this book is a great resource in terms of developing and proposing a strategic communication plan. How can one develop and execute an effective communication project or model if one does not have clear goals, or have not defined the mission and purpose statement; or if one has not found the feelings, the belief, and the values of an organization, group or even a person? Switch provides the tools for growth when change is inevitable.

There are brilliant concepts developed throughout the book such as “finding the bright spots” that teaches the readers on how to identify what is working in an not so good situation and see this element as a path to creating hope and success. They offer examples such as the mothers in Vietnam that could raise healthy kids when the rest of village’s children were extremely malnourished. Did they do something different than the rest of the moms? Yes, they found the “the best of what was available” in a poor country. These moms adapted their children’s food regardless if some of the ingredients were not appropriate or were considered a “low class” food (30). “Knowledge does not change behavior” as Sternin, who worked for the Save the Children organization, concluded (30). By teaching and practicing innovative ideas on how to cook a hearty healthy meal, the mothers changed their behavior and children became healthier.

Dan and Chip are not proposing miracles. There are no magic outcomes on their proposals. They ponder about the importance of “scripting the critical move”, which is focused primarily on how human beings tend to be attached to the default plan rather than taking risks or unknown paths. Chapter three demonstrates us that the key is not winning the battle overnight, it is about taking the small steps towards accomplishment. This is a main concept of theSwitch’s framework presented by the authors: “Any successful change requires a translation of ambiguous goals into concrete behaviors. In short, to make a switch, you need to script the critical moves” (54). They state that if one cannot remedy the problem, at least enjoy the satisfaction of trying to fix it, or being close to solving it.

Switch illustrates professionals in the communication area on how to deliver better projects with realistic and achievable strategies, how to visualize a “compelling destination”. For consultants and communicators, learning how to be effective, precise, innovative, and obtaining results are crucial components of any strategic communication plan. Even the most successful executive could be lost in the most important project of his life. Switch emphasized brilliantly on the concept that a good strategic plan must have SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Timely) (82).

As a communicator and a voracious reader, I should confess that one of my favorite part of Switch is “Motivate the Elephant”. The authors emphasize on the “finding the feeling” concept. Even though this is a concept highly studied and developed by other authors, business people, motivators, and speakers, the Heath brothers bring about a reflection that triggers the reader’s attention in Switch: Why do people not support one’s great project or ideas? Why are they not enthused? Some answers and explanations to these questions can be found in Switch.

From my point of view, finding the feeling and fighting the inertia are two of the most powerful and inspiring parts of the book. Both contain significant advices for any communicator who wants the excel as a strategic communication developer. The portion that addresses the third metaphor “shape the path” has valuable meaning and practical examples, especially in the chapters “Tweak the environment” and “Build habits”. However, at this point, the readers may want to rest and digest the information presented in the previous 200 pages without having to add new elements. The readers at this point have already engaged and have connected with the well-written and organized methods and real-life encounters. The many related stories do tend to become a bit repetitive and over-satiated.

There is one moment in “shape the path” that one feels that the scenario described by the authors belong to a perfect world where individuals can control the circumstances. We clearly understand that we need to synchronize the rider and the elephant, but living in our current world with unexpected events at every level may present an obstacle in controlling the environment and external forces which are not easy as the Heath brothers state.

The concept of change that the Heath brothers present is well developed and researched. They motivate the readers to bring out the best of their analytical/rational side and encourage them to integrate it with feelings and emotions. Nevertheless, we should argue if it is always possible to create a path in the environment within the same time frame? How does this trilogy of change work in countries living in a conflictive political and social environment? The formula is not as adaptable as the authors propose.

The Heath brothers are writers that are not interested in just retailing New York Times best sellers. They are true thinkers and persuaders. Their narrative is thoughtful, forward-thinking, relevant, and easy to digest in terms of concept and opinions. Switch is a book that one may consider when seeking inspiration and guidance, or even for a simple task like writing one’s New Year’s resolutions.

The message is clear: change at any level is not easy. It requires a lot of determination, courage, and self-control. The Heath brothers do not have the written a manual for success, yet they have given us practical advices on how to cope with our fear and maximize our strengths. The bravest, smartest human being can feel defeated at the very last second. Switch teaches us on how to analyze and adapt “the rider” (the rational) with the “elephant” (emotional) creating a harmony between them. It reinforces the hope that change can be constructive and rewarding.


Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010) Switch: How to change things when change is hard. New York: Random House.

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