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Switch to this change model for greater impact!

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How do you change things when change is hard? Do we rely on the same way of doing things or are we going to be brave and try something different? In this episode we’re exploring the Switch model and how we might use it as enablers of change. 

As our regular followers may remember, John loves reading books by the Heath brothers, Chip and Dan. They have an easy conversational style and include loads of case studies and examples. Their book Switch: How to change things when change is hard is one of John’s top five books! [Denise also likes Chip and Dan’s work, and loved reading their book Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work.] 

The Switch model is based on the ancient premise that the human mind is divided into parts that at times conflict. This was described by Plato in The Phaedrus, which was written around 370 BC. In this dialogue, Plato used the metaphor of a chariot rider controlling two winged horses—one immortal and essentially good—and the other mortal and essentially unruly and difficult to control. The rider and the two horses symbolise the soul, and its three main components. The charioteer represents man’s reason; the dark horse symbolises man’s appetites and pulls downwards towards the earth, while the white horse represents man’s spirit and pulls upwards towards heaven. There’s a lot more to the story but as you can imagine, it was a turbulent ride! 

Almost 20 centuries after Plato’s work, Sigmund Freud published his controversial essay in 1920, Beyond the pleasure principle. In it he proposed that the mind is divided into three parts: the ego (the rational, conscious self), the superego (the conscience which relates to society’s rules and norms) and the id (the desire for immediate pleasure). We won’t go down the rabbit hole of discussing Freud’s work, but the important item to note is there are three parts to the mind, similar to Plato’s philosophy. 

John notes that Freud is attributed with saying that time spent with cats is never wasted. This is probably an urban myth, but is music to Denise’s ears (and slightly justifies having two cats…)! Anyway, more recently in 2006, the psychologist Jonathon Haidt used the metaphor of an elephant and its rider to represent the divided mind with its automatic and controlled behaviours. The automatic processing (of the elephant) allows multiple tasks to be processed in parallel and unconsciously, while the controlled processes (of the rider) are sequential and are represented by language and reasoning. This is similar to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, where he talks about System One and System Two processes.

This brings us to the Switch model which uses the metaphor of an elephant, its rider and the path. The elephant represents our emotional side, and the rider our rational side. While the rider holding the reins appears to be in control, in reality it is the elephant with its much larger size. The strengths of the rider include long-term thinking and planning for the future, whereas the strengths of the elephant are emotional fortitude and the energy to get things done. On the other hand, the weaknesses of the rider include a tendency to over-analyse and overthink situations, resulting in analysis paralysis. The elephant is often lazy and fickle, looking for instant gratification, undermining the rider who is willing to suffer short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits.

For effective change, we need to appeal to both the elephant (which provides the energy) and the rider (which provides planning and direction). The third element of the model is the path (the surrounding environment) which considers structural changes that support the desired change. By designing the path to avoid distractions or temptations, it’s possible to create a supportive environment for change. The authors outline 10 variables: find the bright spots, script the critical moves, point to the destination, find the feeling, shrink the change, grow the people, tweak the environment, build habits, rally the herd, and keep the change going. The diagram below shows the interaction of the variables and the three elements leading to behaviour change. 

Interaction of the elements of the Switch model. Source: James (2015).

When directing the rider, it’s important to follow the bright spots, where pockets of successful change already exist, and then replicate it. It’s vital to clearly script the critical moves, giving clear, easy-to-follow instructions and state specific behaviours. These should point to the destination, as change is easier when the destination and outcomes are clear. To motivate the elephant, it’s useful to identify the emotions that relate to the change, as knowledge on its own is not sufficient to create change. Where possible, the change should be shrunk by breaking it into smaller chunks which no longer spook the elephant. When shaping the path, the environment should be altered, as when the situation changes, the behaviour changes. Habits should be built, as when behaviour is habitual, it doesn’t wear down the rider. Where possible, connections should be formed with others wanting to undertake similar change, as seeing their changed behaviour is contagious.

If you haven’t read the Switch book yet, then we highly recommend you do. The authors do a great job of introducing the ideas and it’s full of great examples. Towards the end of the book there’s a great summary of the three elements, showing each of the 10 variables and reminding us of the examples of each provided in the text. We like the Switch model as it takes into account some of the behavioural science principles and represents a different approach to enabling change. It provides a good contrast from some of the other more mechanical models of change, such as the Theory of Reasoned Action, which we’ll cover in a future post. 

As a special bonus, we found this great short video narrated by Dan Heath which you might enjoy! And, you’ve read our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below and tell us about your experiences with the Switch model, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversationjoin in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change blog post. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you read, please tell your friends so they too can join the conversation!


Freud, S. (1955). Beyond the pleasure principle. In: The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVIII (1920-1922): Beyond the pleasure principle, group psychology and other works (pp. 1-64).

Haidt, J. (2007). The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting ancient wisdom to the test of modern science (Vol. 1).

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. Broadway Books. 

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2013). Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work. Random House.

James, J. (2015). Adoption and use of Web 2.0 technologies: a comparison of four adoption models as a case study of a state government eExtension project [PhD, University of Southern Queensland]. Available online

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