Can you get families to eat healthier food, delinquent students to start showing up on time, businesses and governments to save millions of dollars by buying smarter, all by learning one set of concepts? Chip & Dan Heath think so. In Switch, they lay out a basic framework for all kinds of change, from the individual to the social level–and they tell stories to show how to make the changes.
“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” If we can make it easier for people to do something different, more of them will. If we can encourage new habits, those habits will take a lot of the stress and strain out of change. “Behavior is contagious,” so show that a lot of other people are doing the right thing and you will get even more people to join them. (This is a concept I’ve heard people call “social marketing,” and it’s one of the big reasons that fewer people smoke tobacco today.)
The Heaths illustrate all these concepts with stories that are “made to stick” in your mind (to use the title of one of their previous books). Here’s one that pulls all three together:
In 2004, 1 out of every 10 patients in the U.S. received defective medical care. For instance, they “did not receive their antibiotics in the specified time.” So, “thousands of patients were dying every year, unnecessarily. Dr. Donald Berwick set out to change that.
- He proposed that the medical industry save 100,000 lives in 18 months, and he gave them six specific ways to do it. (Clarity, for the Rider.)
- He brought in a mom whose little girl had been killed by a medical error. She told the hospitals, “I know that if this campaign had been in place four or five years ago, that Josie would be fine.” (Motivation, for the Elephant. What greater motivation is there for a healthcare professional than saving the life of a child?)
- He made it easy for hospitals to join the campaign (by signing a one-page form) and brought them together in conferences where they could see how others just like them were succeeding. (Smoothing the Path)
As a result. by the set date, the campaign had saved 122,300 lives, “the equivalent of throwing a life preserver to every man, woman, and child in Ann Arbor, Michigan.”
Now, I am not convinced that this formula for change will always work. I agree with the Heaths that even a marginal improvement is better than none, and their techniques will work when there is no entrenched and powerful opposition to the change you have in mind. You can probably lose weight this way. You can very likely get more people where you work to respond to their email. If you are trying to raise the minimum wage, or end global warming, or stop a war, you are going to need more.
As Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a struggle.” For struggle, you need a movement. You cannot throw a behavioral switch. Even a social movement would have something to learn by reading this book, however, and for most of us, most of the time, this framework will be a powerful set of tools. I strongly recommend reading this book and then going to work on making change where you live.
“Tell me a story.”
Beginning in childhood, we all ask to hear stories. They entertain us. They delight us. They help us make sense of a world that’s been there before us and that’s going on all around us, which we spend our lives trying to understand. As adults, we discover new techniques for making sense of the world: measurements, statistics, correlations, theory. Graphs and charts help us make discoveries. Photos and artwork call our attention in ways words can’t, and music touches us in places that words don’t. Still and all, when people mobilize to get things done, it’s usually because we have seen ourselves as characters in a story. The pictures, the numbers, and the words all come together and we see the present moment as part of an ongoing drama. When the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” that was one of the shortest stories ever told…and one of the most compelling.
I’ve come to realize that in my work life, what I do best and what I like to do the most is to tell the story of an organization, to make its case, so that people want to devote their time, their money, their energy, their ideas to helping it succeed. In my years at CAAS and in the nonprofit world, I’ve enjoyed many ways of communicating, from in-person and on-air interviews to written proposals, from helping Reflection Films produce a video about CAAS to helping Andy Metzger write articles about poverty for the Somerville Journal–and of course,writing this blog.
Note: this entry originally appeared in May 2012 on my personal blog.