Switch: Chip and Dan Heath on Behavioural Change

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SwitchSwitch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard is a book I picked up on impulse when I was buying another book by the same authors recommended by a friend. I ended up reading this one first for the simple reason it was a bit smaller and lighter and would fit in my handbag on a trip I took just after it arrived.

I’ve read and enjoyed (and indeed blogged about) ideas by Chip and Dan Heath before, and this book is similarly helpful, practical and cheerfully written. Their strength is in synthesis – bringing together ideas from other authors and presenting them in ways that are memorable and usable. So, the cast of sources they cite includes names already familiar to regular readers here, such as Kotter and Dweck, but I’d say the Heaths still add value in the clarity with which they put together their advice.

It’s almost as if they’ve read their own previous work on what makes ideas sticky.

The book gives anecdotes from all kinds of different areas of life, though not, it turned out, from the choral rehearsal. So it will be our task to take their ideas and see how they play out in our ongoing task of behavioural change that is developing the skills of a vocal ensemble. In future posts I plan to explore some the specific ideas they present and explore some case studies of how these play out in rehearsal.

For today, though, there are a few bigger-picture points to reflect on.

First is their over-arching point that, whilst some changes seems immensely difficult, some changes we embrace very willingly, and understanding the different conditions that produce the different responses is very useful for facilitating shifts in behaviour. Their primary example is parenthood – there are few things more permanently disruptive to a lifestyle as having a baby, yet people volunteer to do this all the time and take great joy in doing so.

Indeed, they don’t really dwell on the ways parenthood can be really tough – their tone is resolutely up-beat – but actually the difficulties only serve to support their point. Raising kids is not a bed of roses, but people still choose to do it.

Second is their point that it’s not about ‘types’ of people – those who like change and those who don’t – but about the circumstances people find themselves in. One of the most powerful messages for me was that often what looks like a people problem is actually a situation problem. This resonates helpfully with Robin Stuart-Kotze’s work about how interactional styles shape behaviour, but extends it to the whole physical environment in which we operate.

This is something I’ve thought about to an extent, say in the context of choir layouts and their effect on ensemble, but there’s clearly a lot more thinking to be done. My focus has usually been on the people rather than the environment they’re in, so this is an interesting mental shift for me.

Related to this is the point that what often looks like resistance may simply be lack of clarity. There is more than a touch of Doug Lemov’s approach here – he talks of dealing with discipline issues in schools by giving very specific instructions. ‘Behave yourself!’ requires the child to do far too much interpretation to get to a successful result; ‘Sit facing the front with your feet under the desk,’ is easy to follow. Notice that the issue is clarity, though, not necessarily detail. In some of their case studies, increases of specificity produced desired behavioural changes, in others, the key was in simplifying complex instructions.

And a final general point I am finding useful to mull over is this:

Whatever you do, people are going to form habits. The question is, how can we make sure those habits are ones that will prove helpful?

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