Fits & Fugues

Education can be so much more.


In the first part of last year I read/listened to Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. I loved it and have often referred back to ideas from some of its fabulous stories. Like any good technobibliophile, I went to the book’s web page to see what resources they might have. I signed up and downloaded some stuff and checked back in occasionally when the opportunity prompted. Theres some good stuff there for educators.

Switch by Chip & Dan Heath

Then in November, I received an email stating I would be receiving a copy of their new book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. I was initially excited and having signed up on their site I wasn’t too suspicious of receiving emails from them. Cool. I grew excited and found myself anticipating it’s arrival, much like Ralphie in that favorite movie of mine. Then Ralphie’s lesson that he learned from his decoder ring started echoing in my mind…”A crummy commercial!” I slowly began to suspect as much as well.

The blur of the end of the semester and the year swept away all thoughts of the book until it arrived in the mail. There was a letter with the book that said thanks for checking it out. Really cool. I read on to see the catch, suspicious like a kid who’s been burned on an Ovaltine commercial gimmick, and there it was…

“One serious request: Please don’t blog or tweet about Switch until January 15, 2010.”

(You can see I’m well beyond that deadline.) What? Oooh, the secrecy…I looked at the cover of the book and it has a caption at the top “Uncorrected Proof – Not for Sale” (see the picture to the right). Really, really cool. I felt like I was part of some super secret society. I started reading right away and noticed some things that needed correcting -that’s the old English teacher kicking in.

I found the book very engaging, but the holidays hit and the second semester started and I was running on 5-ish hours of sleep for a period of time that made any kind of casual reading impossible. So when I went to EduCon, I was determined to read the book. The flight to Philly and back provided just the opportunity I needed. Although I must say I probably could have finished the book much quicker if I didn’t keep stopping to make notes from thoughts the book triggered. I absolutely love that in a book!

I’m quite interested in the change process, but I’m worn out with the onslaught of change procedure manuals that focus on process and not people. Switch’s focus is on people and how to help, motivate, and encourage them (us) through the change and it’s (often perceived) barriers. It’s not about callous manipulation and sterile, mechanistic change protocols. In fact Switch is an acknowledgement that our hearts, minds, and situations all play significant roles in how we approach and embrace/reject change. Brothers Heath in Switch “argue that successful changes share a common pattern. They require the leader to do three things at once…Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant, and Shape the Path.”

Hang on there, Rick. Rider? Elephant? Path? What kind of circus is this? Can these guys really be serious with this stuff?

For sure (and we’ll come back to that), but they don’t take themselves too seriously and they are realistic about the framework they’ve created.

“We created this framework to be useful for people who don’t have scads of authority or resources…As helpful as we hope this framework will be to you, we’re well aware, and you should be too, that this framework is no panacea.”

I absolutely appreciate the practical simplicity of those two sentences and the two sequential paragraphs they introduce in the book. In fact, I’m pretty sure those pages in that section of the first chapter sold me on the rest of the book.

Now, back to the circus.

The Heath’s conversational writing style and engaging storytelling provide fertile ground for their explanations and takeaway learnings. They’re both educators, which adds extra credibility and perspective for me. They know a good word picture/example/metaphor/story when they steal it. Okay, they really don’t steal the stuff they use in the book; they give credit where it’s due. For their framework they have taken an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, of an elephant and it’s rider. -I have to admit I had a small mental image of an circus-type elephant and rider on initial conception, but as I read on I replaced that image with that of an oliphaunt and haradrim rider as depicted in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.

The essence of the rider, elephant, and path analogy-pattern-framework comes down to this:

  • Direct the Rider -our rational side. “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.”
  • Motivate the Elephant -our emotional side. “What looks like laziness (or reluctance -my addition here) is often exhaustion…engage people’s emotional sides.”
  • Shape the Path -our situations. “What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and the Elephant.”

Throughout the book, the Heath’s use surprising and entertaining stories to illustrate and clarify their Rider/Elephant/Path analogy. They are amazing, funny, poignant, incredible and sometimes jaw-dropping. Each story effective reinforces the the sub-elements of the framework. Switch will provoke and entertain, stimulate and inspire, and reframe and refocus (note the section on SMART goals in chapter four, especially). I know it sounds a little like a commercial, but leaders in any capacity will find benefit in these pages. The takeaways at the end of the book with the Problem-Advice format add an additional dimension to the book and reinforce the lessons in the book.

Switch has a wealth of resources for anyone wanting to keep people at the forefront of any change (small or large). I’m interested to see how those in the educational community respond as they read the book and incorporate it into their own change initiatives, knowing it is not an all-inclusive manual about top-down control. Here, the Heath’s caution us, “Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions.”

I look forward to the discussion.


February 4, 2010 - Posted by | Education | , , , , ,


  1. Looks like an interesting book. How exactly was it that you received this book? You were on their mailing list an they just sent it to you. Is the “corrected” proof available now? Thanks for telling us about it.

    Comment by Phil | March 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. Phil, The book has been released and is available through most any book seller. How I received an early copy of the book is a mystery. I didn’t do anything other than register for the resources on their site. I ended up buying the hardback when it was released anyway…

    Comment by Rick Tanski | March 9, 2010 | Reply

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