Chip Heath: Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant, Shape the Path

At the recent Social Enterprise Alliance World Summit in San Francisco, Chip Heath delivered a fantastic keynote.  Co-author of “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” and “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” (both co-written with his brother Dan), Heath delivered serious insights in simple, bite-sized, sticky chunks, paired with memorable examples, humor and an engaging presentation.  I was impressed, though this wasn’t too surprising given that the guy writes about the uptake of ideas.

While change is hard, Heath pointed out that people undergo major life changes all the time, and even like it (his examples were marriage and having kids).

Human decision making is like a tiny rider on a massive elephant.  The rider may think he’s in charge, but the elephant’s will always wins. Both are imperfect – the rider over-thinks and over-analyzes.  The elephant acts on passion and emotion. Heath’s advice for causing change was three-pronged:

  1. Direct the rider
  2. Motivate the elephant
  3. Shape the path

1) Direct the rider:

Humans obsess about problems to a fault and spend very little time analyzing what’s right, say, in a relationship.  Heath explained how focusing on bright spots rather than issues can be transformational.  Let’s study what’s working and do more of that.  He gave an example of Donald Berwick at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement who aimed to save 100,000 lives by a certain date, and exceeded his goal simply by looking at what medical practices worked and spreading them across healthcare facilities.

2) Motivate the elephant:

People are emotional and often react better to a good story than heaps of data.  Tell a story and allow your listeners to draw their own conclusions (which ideally match up with yours).  In a vivid example, Heath described a procurement officer who wanted to overhaul his company’s supply chain for greater efficiency.  Rather than say that, or bombard his team with data on the problem, he chose one item — gloves worn by the manufacturing team — and noticed that the company purchased 424 kinds of gloves.  He got one of each and placed them in a mound on the conference table and then invited his team in.  Without saying a word, they began to proclaim “This is crazy! We can fix this so easily!” — which was exactly what the procurement officer wanted to do.  He invited his colleagues to see, feel, and then change the problem.

Interestingly, Heath pointed out that the environmental movement has got us all saying, “This is crazy!” but no one is quite at the point of saying, “And we can fix it!” And that’s a problem.

3) Shape the path:

Make change easy.  Manipulate the situation and the environment such that the desired behavior is frictionless.  Amazon’s 1 click purchasing button is a great example of removing all barriers between the customer and the goal.  If you are trying to drive change, have you removed every single barrier between the people who aim to change and the actions you want them to take?  “What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem,” Heath explained.  The clearer your ask, the higher the likelihood that people will comply.  Giving students a map and specific directions about donating a can of food increased their likelihood of compliance from 8% to 42% in the most kind students, and 0% to 25% in the least kind students.

So to recap:

  • Direct the rider – study the bright spots and replicate
  • Motivate the elephant – use emotional levers
  • Shape the path – make change easy

How does this apply to your work? How can you enhance the chance that people will change their behaviors using these simple guidelines?

Amie runs Cobblestone Solutions, LLC, a consultancy focusing on business development, marketing, communications and strategy for mission driven companies. Previously, Amie served as Director of Business Development for Viv (a Bay Area environmental start-up), Program Manager for Social Venture Technology Group (a boutique consulting firm focused on measuring social and environmental impact), and Associate Consultant at Bain & Co (a global management consulting firm). She is particularly interested in innovations that reduce waste, altering consumer behavior for good, and leveraging the power of business to solve the climate crisis. You can read more from her on her blog, on GreenBiz.com, and on JustMeans.