Book Review of Switch, for Safety Professionals

Book Review of Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath  (2010)

I was attracted to Switch because of the subtitle “How to change things when change is hard.”  And the Heath brothers have written another best seller called Made to Stick.   They write a column in Fast Company Magazine.   But this was not an easy read.   So I want to simplify the book for you.

I thought you might appreciate their model and examples.  Then I applied it to your world as EH&S professionals.

Hopefully these notes will help you understand change, and to be a more effective change agent.

The dominant metaphor for change is an image with 3 parts.  Imagine 1) an Elephant, that large, hard-charging, emotional being that is hard to manage.  Then imagine 2) a Rider sitting on top, the rational being that wants to provide a direction.  Then imagine 3) a Desired Path or direction for your team.  Combine these 3 parts.

Now imagine a herd of elephants driving consistency in safety practices at ALL project sites.

How do you make that happen?

1)      Direct the Rider

2)      Motivate the Elephant

3)      Shape the Path

That image is easier to understand than the endless examples provided in this book.  The Heath brothers string together a number of business practices, obscure psychological studies, and try to debunk myths about organizational change.

So here is a simplified model with some nuggets/takeaways:

1)      Direct The Rider

  1. The Rational part of our brain is not always in charge, although we like to think it is.  Humans have the capacity to rationalize any decision.  You know this from your buying habits.  For instance, after buying a truck that you do not need.   If you walk into the storeroom, intent on “getting a deal,” then you can convince yourself that you just made a smart investment.  Some of my coaching clients have said that the same rationalization process occurs in your job.  You can rationalize a 2% compensation increase in a 4% inflationary economy.   You can confirm multiple explanations during a root cause analysis.  You can rationalize long days or bad food or decreasing health self care.  That rational brain helps us survive.  Sometimes it leads to change.
  1. Self control is exhausting.  Consider how hard it is to go on a diet.  In contrast, Alcoholics Anonymous succeeds by focusing on smaller chunks of time- “one day at a time.”  People complete more goals when they are told that they are already 20% of the way toward that goal.  That is why people start a United Way campaign with seed money, and then open it to local contributions.  You may think someone is lazy or resistant to a key safety practice or to spreadsheet compliance.  But they may just be exhausted.  All employees get exhausted by continued change, holding back our true feelings, or some situational constraint.  Change is more likely when they are not exhausted.
  1. What we think of as “people problems” are more often “situation problems.”  For instance, when site managers emphasize safety training at one site, vs. “no training at any cost” at another site, that is a situational problem.  Safety professionals in Fossil Power are often reassigned every 12 – 36 months.  Each site manager has unique expectations for the safety professionals.  Sometimes the contract terms, and the craft, define the situation.  The best safety professionals must be agile.  Otherwise, your career is short.  Sometimes safety professionals can redesign the situation by distributing resources.
  1. We need to “Find the Bright Spots.”  There are always bright spots, and those stories can lead to “Safety Minutes” or “Success Minutes at every morning meeting.  We get resistance when we focus on resistance.  And we get success stories when we focus on success stories.
  1. We get more change when we “Script the Critical Path.”   You know that there is a Critical Path to project completion.  In the same way, if you give a supervisor more than 3 ways to do something, analysis paralysis will prevent further action.  However, when you state the recommended path and coach the supervisor on WHY they should do something that way, then the supervisor and their crew is more likely to make the behavior change you desire.  You know the value of KISS.

2)      Motivate the Elephant

  1. Emotions make stories sticky.  You will always remember  when Joe laughed so hard he had to sit down on the ground to recover.   And if you ask Joe, or any supervisor, how often he thinks his crew is compliant, he will ALWAYS rate his crew higher than any external observer.  That is another reason why your project site needs safety professionals.  Positive self illusions are always inflated.
  1. To create behavior change, you need to “Find the Desired Feeling.”   When you want to feel team commitment, you need to model team rewards.   Psychologists (and some safety managers) once thought that change occurs when you 1) analyze, then 2) think, and then 3) change behavior.  Sadly, the rational brain is limited.  Now we know that the process is 1) see the desired future, 2) feel the desired emotion, and then 3) change behavior.  For instance, if you have 30 vendors providing 100 different types of gloves on your job sites, you have a choice.  You could analyze the vendors, products, and price per glove.  Or you could gather 100 types of gloves into boxes, add price tags, and then dump them on the table when the business line leaders are meeting.  They will 1) see the price discrepancy, 2) feel committed, and 3) change the future purchasing decisions.
  1. Change occurs when we “Shrink the Change.”  Small steps work better than large steps.  For instance, if you are not able to pay off your credit cards, but choose to pay off the smaller ones first, you gain momentum.  In time you will be more likely to pay off all your debts.   In order to make an elephant dance, you need to nudge it to make small steps.  Same with people.
  1. In order to “Grow your People” you need to adopt a growth mindset, not a fixed mindset.  Coaching works for those who can imagine a better future.  Not all employees are coachable.  Those with a fixed mindset tend to get reassigned to multiple job sites.  Then they are banished.  In contrast, those with a growth mindset ask open-ended questions.  They master their jobs.  They learn from others.  Then they coach others to excel.  Those with a growth mindset become change agents.

3)      Shape the Path

  1. When you “Tweak the Environment” you can build new habits.  A classic example is a married couple struggling with bills, children, lack of intimacy… perhaps you know this couple.  They are not sure what to do next.  Then one day he gives her a quick kiss on the way out the door.  She is happier all day.  That evening they spend time on a walk together.  That tweak– the quick kiss– led to a new habit.   Same with a quick compliment to that difficult person, or a “Thank You for trying” to that new supervisor.  The best safety coaches continually tweak the environment to create desired changes.
  1. “Rally the Herd.”  Stampedes start with one cow moving in one direction.  Your job as a leader is to “rally others behind a vision of a better future.”  There is nothing more important than to set the positive tone.  Then keep the masses moving in a desired direction.  1 Million Man hour celebrations are an example.  So are reductions in EMR that lead to significant rewards.  If your safety records are trending down, then you are making money.  That unallocated profit will make your senior leaders happy.  Safety can be first.
  1. “Safety Leaders need to Engineer Hope.“  Not fear.  We have more negative adjectives (67%) than positive adjectives (33%) in the English language.  That fact holds true in most languages.   And we recall negative emotions longer than positive emotions, in the oldest part of our brain.  Fear paralyzes people to change.  Fear is a choice.  Hope catalyzes people to change.

So, some coaching questions include:

“How are you engineering hope at your project site?”

“What emotional stories are you choosing to share?”

“If your site is trending toward zero tolerance, how much money are you saving?”

Feel free to contact me at any time to discuss how your project site can change when things are hard.

Respectfully, Doug Gray