Recently, I had the great pleasure of reading the book “Switch – How To Change Things When Change Is Hard” by Chip and Dan Heath. Apart from it being very well written, and thus fun and easy to read, this book is a must-read for all of us. Not just for the so-called professionals, but truly for every one of us out here. After all, in one way or another we are all dealing with change. Changes that are forced upon us, changes that we want to see in others as well as changes that we want for ourselves and our communities and societies.
The Heath brothers dish out many stories about people involved in change – in different environments, on different levels and with very different goals. All of them are used to visualise different aspects of their in principle very simple framework for successful change. It consists of an elephant, a rider on top of the elephant and a path they can take. Since you all must read the book, I will not say more than this about it: change needs motivation from the heart, energy and dogged perseverance (elephant) as well as a rationale – understanding of the ultimate goal and the need for change – combined with clear thinking and analysis of the situation (the rider). It is possible to shape the path so that it is easier-going. And: small steps are all-important.
What made this simple framework so appealing to me, is that I could easily recognise my own experiences in it. I, too, have found that in order to achieve change you need to get people motivated to move and that this is more than just explaining to them why such and such change is important. Knowing is by far not enough to get into action, while at the same time not having certain background information can make it difficult to move in the “right” direction. I, too, have noticed that small steps can lead to bigger changes, and that it is important to pay sufficient attention to the value of every achievement, however small it may seem to the ambitious change-maker. I recognise these notions from my own personal life of course, but also from projects that I was engaged in professionally.
For instance, after reading this book I much better understand why the Green Agenda approach for local sustainable development that I was involved in developing is so powerful and successful in many local communities.
It starts out simple: bring together as many local stakeholders as possible and ask them what they value about their community. Those that have read Switch will recognise an elephant appetiser here (Find the Feeling) combined with a hint for the rider (Point to the Destination). People are invited to tap from a feeling of pride in their community and challenged to overlook problems for the moment.
Next in the Green Agenda method, thematic multi-stakeholder working groups are formed – each dealing with one of the selected priority values. Each group performs a thorough analysis of the value: what trends can be seen in regard of the value, what impacts do the trends have, what is the ideal situation of the value, what is the difference between the current or projected future situation and the ideal (=problem), what are (root) causes, and what could be solutions. During all these steps the groups are intensively supported. Also, groups are encouraged to break down the causes and solutions into manageable ones (proposing to build a 2 million euro sewerage system is not exactly within the reach of local stakeholders in a small rural community – at least not for starters). Again – elephant feed all around: the needed change gets down to a doable level (Shrink the Change) and the groups strengthen their common identity (Grow your People). At the same time, the rider is called upon for his or her analytical skills and powers.
The final steps in the Green Agenda method include the formulation of a strategic plan, an action plan and a monitoring plan incorporating the findings and proposals of all thematic multi-stakeholder working groups. And preparing a so-called Green Agenda document which describes these plans, and includes information about the steps taken to develop them. The document is presented at local meetings in which people can still propose changes. Finally, the document is adopted by the local authorities and implementation starts – with involvement of local stakeholders. Here, it’s easy to recognise elements of rider incentives: concrete steps are proposed and adopted (Script the Critical Moves) as well as aspects of shaping the path: local people are mobilised to get involved and become engaged (Rally the Herd), whereas adoption of the document developed by local stakeholders also changes the status of the ideas of these stakeholders and increases local ownership of local policies (Tweak the Environment).
The method as a whole also contributes to Building Habits – another way of shaping the path – as it develops ways and means of realising genuine stakeholder involvement. All the steps taken, linkages built and communication channels opened can be used in future processes as well, and in reality they are.
So quite apart from understanding why some of my worse habits are still with me, this book helped me understand more of the actual strengths of a method I have been using and propagating for almost a decade now. Understanding this better will certainly help me in developing more successful approaches to groups I work with and projects I help design. I wish you the same experience when reading this must-read book – and I hope that my small hints of the treasures you will find there are sufficient to make you curious enough to go find Switch!