Book by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Review by Jean C. Fulton
Academic Advisor
Landmark College, Putney, VT

One of the most significant pieces of information in Switch is also one of the simplest.  The brain, when confronted with a big problem, naturally feels there needs to be a big solution. However, it isn’t necessarily so. The authors show that searching for a solution as complex as the problem itself will likely result only in paralysis. Instead, they discuss and demonstrate patterns of behavior that lead to successful and often surprisingly quick change – on a personal level, an organizational level, and even the level of society.

Advisors are all about change.  We often serve – or at least aim to serve – as catalysts for growth in our students, and the process of advising also has the power to promote transformation in ourselves. However, as we all know, change can be challenging because of an underlying tension between the rational mind and the emotional mind.  In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt says the emotional mind is like an Elephant and the rational mind its Rider. The authors of Switch, crediting Haidt as a major influence, focus on how to motivate the huge, powerful Elephant (getting the emotions on board) while simultaneously provide direction to the seemingly-in-control but tiny Rider (so he won’t become overwhelmed or lead the Elephant in circles).  They also focus on Shaping the Path, such that steps of progress can be evident along the way. This book considers how to create change even with few resources and little authority, as it dismantles three fundamental misconceptions:  what appears to be a problem with people may instead be situational; what seems to be laziness is often simply exhaustion; and what looks like resistance is frequently lack of clarity about how to move ahead. 

Throughout, the authors are present in the clear and coherent narrative, interlacing discussion and examples, integrating research from sociology, psychology, and other relevant fields. Extended anecdotes are memorable, such as the Target corporate ready-to-wear manager trying to get merchants excited about the power of color.  The merchants were numbers-driven and concerned only about sales figures, however, so discussion about upcoming trends had gone nowhere.  Finally, the manager brought giant bags of brightly-colored M&Ms to a meeting and – without explanation – poured them into huge glass bowls on the conference table.  Addressing the Elephant worked, and with that foundation, the merchants (and their Riders) went on to craft a plan. 

Working with advisees, how often do we try to inform the Rider when we might do better first to address the Elephant?  To support students (and ourselves) in the process of change, we need to appeal to both Elephant and Rider and also, as the authors express it, tweak the environment.  Even one such image of cascading M&Ms, reverberating in the mind of an advisor, is likely to inspire fresh thinking, and Switch is full of such encouragements.  Recommendations with practical relevance for advising include, among others, focusing on the bright spots, avoiding archeology, preloading decisions, using action triggers, creating destination postcards, scripting early moves, celebrating progress (no matter how small), shrinking the change, and enhancing accountability.  The book includes detailed notes for each chapter with research references as well as suggestions for additional reading.

Reference:  Haidt, Jonathan. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. New York:  Basic Books.

Switch:  How to change things when change is hard. (2010)  Book by Chip Heath & Dan Heath.  Review by Jean Fulton. New York: Random House Inc., 320 pp., $26.00, ISBN 978-0-385-52875-7

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