Top critical review
86 people found this helpful
"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."
on 25 March 2011
This quote from Albert Einstein haunts my evaluation of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath, those Miliband brothers of the business world. Switch is a simple book. It is based on a simile - the emotional part of the mind is like an elephant, the rational part is like its rider, and getting them to work together requires roadwork. That's it, really.
So is this simple, or simplistic? Have they provided a structure for individual and corporate change that is easy to apply and powerful in it effects, with all unnecessary verbiage and overkill stripped away? Or is it a nice little story - borrowed from someone else - with a swamp of other, lesser stories engineered in to fill out some space?
This book made me think, which is always a plus. Switch's often repeated mantra that 'people problems are really situation problems' (3, 183) challenged my own view of the nature of change considerably. It also serves to explain the authors' suspicion of personality testing and analysis as a change mechanism (114 with note, 252, 258). Their main thesis seems to be that managing change is not a matter of reason or emotion but environment, not inner working (which are hard to influence) but the outer world (which is easier).
This environmental emphasis is further reinforced by their (research justified) assertions that 'willpower is not enough' (10) and 'knowledge is not enough' (30, 35, 109, 112, 175). In particular, the notion that increased information can easily lead to change gets a real kicking in Switch; knowledge without change is TBU - True But Useless (71). Rather, emotions are the key (105), or rather motivation as managed through tweaking your situation. To diagnose failure to change as a personal issue rather than a situational one is to commit the 'fundamental attribution error' (180 with note).
The authors are convincing when they analyse the problems of 'analysis paralysis' (33, 72) and 'decision paralysis' (50) inherent with reliance on reason ('the rider') alone. I enjoyed learning about BHAG's (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals - 75) and Black-and-White Goals (86), as well as the SEE-FEEL-CHANGE method of persuasion (106). I wanted to know more about the identity model of decision-making (153), the management technique of 'appreciative enquiry' (48 with note), and the theory of 'small wins' (136). I was glad to recognise the inclusion of key psychologists whose ideas have much to say to the world of work, such as Martin Seligman (121), Ellen Langer (124), Albert Bandura (129 with note) and Carol Dweck (164).
Most of the good stuff quoted above comes from the middle and strongest section of the book, 'Motivate the Elephant'. The authors had just done a great job of convincing you that the rider (reason) needs directing; this takes the first third of Switch. But it is in the crucial final section - 'Shape the Path' - that the books weaknesses emerge. Which are? Too much repetition of previously stated points. An over-use of illustrative, folksy stories with dubious immediate relevance. And suggested solutions that border on the childish e.g. checklists (220).
There also seems to me to be some basic points of tension in the message of Switch. We're told to give ourselves big, bold goals...but 'lower the bar' (130) and seek small victories. We're told to 'script' all our moves...but then leave the middle part of the journey to take care of itself (93). Perhaps this fuzziness is inevitable when you use metaphors to explain similes!
I'll take away from Switch the basic triadic model for change it promotes, as well as a newfound appreciation for the situational element in creating change. Reading Switch has also left me with a douzen-or-so different articles, concepts and thinkers to research. (Sometimes the references in the notes were the book's best bits.) And I'm persuaded by it that the usual mixture of information and perspiration - new facts and/or more willpower - are not sufficient or even the primary tools in our quest for improvement.
So, Switch, simple or simplistic? Simplistic, I'm afraid. However, Switch did provide enough additions and challenges to my current thinking about change to balance out its flaws a little. I would recommend Switch for those who want a self-help book but aren't familiar with the wider literature. As a business book, Switch's value might reflect the reader's prior knowledge of what to look out for. There are nuggets in the notes. The rest is a one-time read.