Elephant warning sign.

According to authors Dan and Chip Heath, acknowledging the "inner elephant" is important when trying to drive change.

Chip Heath, co-author of Switch, will be the closing plenary speaker at the MCF 2010 Annual Convening. Want a little taste of what Chip will share with you if you attend? Check out Stephanie Jacob’s post, originally published at the MCF Philanthropy Potluck Blog.

In the philanthropic sector, we talk a lot about making change. “We are change agents. We strive to make changes in the lives of others to improve our communities.”

As much as we talk about making change, we also talk about how hard it is. “People are resistant or slow to change. Change takes so much work!”

According to a new book by Dan and Chip Heath, it’s not necessarily that change is hard. In fact, some changes are pretty easy to make or even happen without people noticing (for instance, did you think ketchup was still the number one condiment in the U.S.? Guess again!) In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, the Heath brothers explore why some changes are easier to make than others. The stories, tools, and advice they provide can be useful in your personal life, in your organization, or when you are trying to make changes in a community.

Dan and Chip start off by stating that there are two sides of the brain that inform how we decide to make changes: 1) the rational side that prefers logic and reason, and 2) the emotional side that caters to our feelings. When these sides work together, making a change is easier. When they work against each other, it’s much harder to make a change. The simplest example of this is demonstrated when someone is trying to lose weight. The rational side of the brain knows that to lose weight you should eat salads, but the emotional side of the brain really wants a cookie.

The authors take this premise to build on a metaphor borrowed from The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. Imagine that the emotional side of your brain is a gigantic elephant that is instinctual and impulsive (“Mmmmm…cookie!”) Now imagine that the elephant has a rider on its back, trying to guide that elephant in a certain direction. The rider is the rational side of your brain (“Dressing on the side, please!”)

Using that image, it’s easier to understand why people make certain decisions when it comes to change. The elephant is very powerful and doesn’t always listen to the rider, which can lead them down the wrong path. On the other hand, the rider can sometimes over-think and over-analyze a situation, which causes the elephant to stall. But, when the rider and the elephant agree, it can be a comfortable ride in the first steps towards change.

The Heath brothers believe there are three things we can do to make change easier:

1) Direct the rider by finding the bright spots:

The rider spins his/her wheels when there is no clear direction. The rational parts of our brains want to know the facts behind why we are going down a certain path. The best way to find that path is not to focus on the negatives, but to ask: “What’s working well for us? And how can we do more of what works well? How can we be more like ourselves at our best moments?” Answering these questions can provide direction for the rider. When making a change, people want knowledge and guidance as to what clear, specific changes need to be made.

2) Motivate the elephant:

The elephant is not going anywhere unless it wants to and logic doesn’t always provide the motivation. We need to find out what motivates people emotionally that will trigger them to make the changes we are hoping for: “What emotions are coming into play when people are considering this change? How can we use these emotions in a positive way towards change?” The combination of motivation and direction is catalytic when advocating for changes to be made.

3) Shape the path:

Once the rider and the elephant are in sync, there still might be obstacles in their path that can make things difficult. These are things in the environment that can be adjusted to make the path easier to tread. Sometimes, it’s easier to change some of the obstacles in the environment than to change the character of the people we are working with: “How can we remove some of the obstacles that are making it hard for people to change?”

When we view the process by which people make decisions to change in this way, we realize that it’s not necessarily that change is hard, but it does take time. It takes time to gather the information to define the clear path. It takes time to find out what motivates people to change and then persuade them to act on those motivations to change. It takes time to clear the obstacles in the path to change. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth it.

Join the conversation: It’s often easier for us to understand the kind of information we personally need in order to make informed decisions (giving our rider directions) and how we feel about a certain subject (what motivates our elephants). When we think about making changes within our organizations or communities, it’s not always apparent what kind of information other people need in order to feel comfortable moving in a certain direction or how their emotions affect the decisions they make. How does your organization figure out what information to provide to lead people in a clear direction, and how do you motivate people to make those changes?

- Stephanie Jacobs, MCF director of member services

Image CC Adam Foster