Can an Elephant teach you about change?

elephant-rider  photo by 9-lives

Imagine a large elephant and a relatively small rider, making their way through the jungle.  Now imagine the elephant sees something they’re interested in and heads that direction…at that point, the rider is literally carried away, even if that’s not where they wanted to go!

That’s a key premise in Switch (How to change when change is hard) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  As the title suggests, this is a book about effecting change…within yourself, your family or your business and it’s full of great stories and a lot of practical ideas.

What’s the deal with the elephant and the rider?  They’re part of an analogy originally developed by Jonathan Haidt – author of The Happiness Hypothesis.  The elephant represents your emotional side and the rider is the analytical / rational part of you.  Think about it this way – it’s mid afternoon, you’re kind of hungry and you know there’s a leftover doughnut laying on a plate in the other room.  Rationally you know you don’t need to doughnut, they’re fried rings of death!  However you also know they taste great and emotionally that doughnut would make you feel really good.  For most people, the elephant is going to win that battle fairly quickly and you are going to eat that doughnut!

That’s what really cool about Switch – they give you a practical framework to not only understand why we act the way we do, but also tools that can help you do something about it.

There are actually 3 components to the framework they use to describe why people do what they do:

The Rider:

The rider is all about rational analysis, logic and the long term view of things.  Unfortunately the Rider is pretty small compared to the Elephant and wears out fairly quickly.  In other words, pure rational willpower can work…but only for a little while…eventually you’re going to get tired of fighting and end up going where the elephant wants to go!

The Elephant:

The elephant is all about emotion and the here and now, instant gratification.  It represents the subconscious part of you, which means it’s the elephant that will try to stick with habits you’ve already got in place…the elephant doesn’t like change and tends to build up a lot of momentum.  However it’s the elephant and the emotional response that also motivates you to do a lot of things that you rationally might not want to do.

The Path:

Finally, the 3rd component of the model is the path.  The path represents the environment…let’s say you really love a particular ice cream that’s only sold at your local ice cream store…in fact you’re addicted to it.  You’d like to stop eating it, but you find yourself stopping at the store every few days because the elephant loves ice cream!  Now imagine that the store closes…goes out of business.  Your habit, your addiction to the ice cream would be broken, not because the rider finally won the argument, but because the environment changed.  There was no more ice cream on the path!  Sometimes you can force a change just by switching up the environment.

Using the framework listed above, the authors then go through more than a dozen examples of how people have made important changes by focusing on different aspects of the framework.  The examples range from a technique that’s used to help people learn to develop a habit of cleaning up – the 5 minute Room Rescue (minimizing change so the elephant doesn’t get scared away) to changing the company culture at Rackspace to one of Fanatical Support (changing the environment to force personal service).

Additional examples talk about changes ranging from individual changes of habits all the way up to major changes in government policies!   But what’s really valuable is the analysis on each example that explains the approach used to make these changes and how it fits into the framework of the Rider, Elephant and Path. 

This is one of those rare business books that’s interesting and really practical in terms of teaching you a process you can use to figure out how to make the changes you need in your business (or your life).

If you’re looking for a great business book to read…or if you’ve got some things you’d like to change in your life or your business (and honestly, who doesn’t?) then you need to check out Switch!  Highly Recommended!

Have you read Switch?  What did you think?  Share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear them.

Shawn Kinkade  Kansas City Business Coach