Changing When Change Is Hard

Winter 2011

By Michael Brosnan

Editor's Note: At the 2010 NAIS Annual Conference in San Francisco, attendees received a copy of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Broadway Books, 2010), by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. With Dan Heath scheduled to speak at the 2011 NAIS Annual Conference outside of Washington, DC, we caught up with him to ask a few questions about his views on institutional change and other related matters.

Brosnan: You write in Switch, “All change effort boils down to the same mission: Can you get people to start behaving differently?” I think of your first book, Made to Stick, as the macro message — offering suggestions on how we can get our ideas or products out into the world. Switch seems more of the micro message — burrowing down to explore how we can change individual behavior within institutions and organizations. Did Switch evolve out of Made to Stick

Heath: Yes. When we talked with people about some of the ideas in Made to Stick, it dawned on us that, nine times out of 10, people were focused on trying to communicate more effectively in order to create change. Whether it was a principal trying to change the approach of the faculty or an entrepreneur trying to attract investors, or a social activist trying to change society, they all believed that communication was the central issue. Yet, communication is only part of what creates change. When this occurred to us, we went back to the literature to see what science had to say about why people change. What is it that makes some change easy and some change hard? Of course, psychology has a tremendous amount to say about that question, and much of what it says is not common sense. And it certainly isn’t in common practice. That’s when we knew we needed to write Switch

Brosnan: One of my favorite lines in Switch is when you write, “We are all loophole-exploiting lawyers when it comes to our own self-control.” It’s as if, when it comes to change, we need solid reasons not to look for loopholes. 

Heath: It all emerges from that constant tug of war in our brains between the rational system and the emotional system. Most of us have experienced it most viscerally in the context of a diet. There’s a rational side of us that wants to lose that 10 pounds and there’s an emotional side of us, a more impulsive side, that really craves the Oreos. And we all know that, unfortunately, when these two duke it out, the emotional side tends to win. 

Well, what seems familiar in the context of diet is unfamiliar in the context of organizational change. For some reason, when we go to work, we pretend change is just a matter of teaching people something new. It’s as if organizational leaders really think, “Once I tell my staff why we should go in a new direction, they’ll change.” That’s very na├»ve. The same force that is going to make a diet hard is going to make organizational change hard. When you share a new direction with your team, the people in the room may appreciate your logic for change. They may agree with you intellectually. And yet there is a more emotional side of them that has grown comfortable with the old way of doing things. They’ve been practicing routine A for years. They are very good at routine A. Now, you’re trying to get them to change to routine B. Even if they agree that B is better than A, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy the next day.

Brosnan: What is the organizational equivalent of Oreos? 

Heath: Routine. We’re comfortable doing things the way we’ve done them. Imagine if I told you that you would get better dental hygiene by brushing your teeth with your opposite hand, and I have impeccable evidence to support that claim. Maybe I convince you that I’m right, but that doesn’t mean that the next morning you are going to magically change and be good at it. In fact, you’re going to hate it because you spent decades learning how to do things the other way. And it’s going to take a great act of will and effort for you to comply with the change. 

When people don’t change, the conclusion often drawn is that they are lazy. But the right conclusion is that people get worn out by trying to adjust to change. The psychology literature tells us that people have a limited amount of self-control, and change requires us to burn self-control. Our self-control “muscle,” so to speak, gets fatigued. And so what looks like laziness is often the exact opposite: exhaustion. 

Brosnan: It seems as if we’re in a time of such great change in education. Pick any conference and just about every other speaker is telling educators that they need to change something. On one level, it’s exciting, but isn’t one of the effects of all these new ideas change fatigue

Heath: The key task of the leader is to prioritize. If you get caught up in the cycle of the change-a-year club — where each year it’s a new reform or a new philosophy — that’s going to breed resistance to change. It’ll breed cynicism. But if you choose the right destination, your people will endure some of the road-bumps en route. They’ll feel like the journey is worthwhile.

In Switch, we also talk about the power of a compelling destination. One of my favorite examples is the story of Laura Esserman, who started a breast cancer clinic in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her vision was to bring all of breast cancer care under one roof. Women were going to walk into the center in the morning, get their mammogram, and if the scan showed a growth, then they would walk out in the afternoon — that same day — with a treatment plan. The center was not going to force women to shuffle between different offices in different parts of town. It was not going to force them to wait agonizingly by the phone for a week or two to see if they were healthy. It was not going to force women to shuttle around their own X-rays, doctor to doctor. To realize this vision took a fantastic amount of internal change at the clinic. Suddenly, departments that were run as their own fiefdoms had to cooperate with each other. It meant that the various departments had to find new ways to work together to make this rapid turn-around possible. 

The vision is the thing that justifies the struggle. A good leader needs to have a vision like that — a vision that is very concrete and motivational. 

Brosnan: In Switch, a number of visionary stories come out of schools. One I like is about the young teacher, Crystal Jones, working with first graders in an inner-city school that hasn’t had much success. She manages to turn things around by getting all her kids to think of themselves as scholars and by focusing on an ambitious one-year goal of having them figuratively advance to be third graders by the end of the year. 

Heath: This is a good example of a compelling vision. First of all, it occurs at the level of teacher-to-student, not administrator-to-teacher. Crystal Jones tells her first grade students, some of whom can’t even hold a pencil properly at the beginning of the year, that, if they’ll work with her, they’ll be third graders by the end of the year. Not literally, of course, but in the sense that they’ll be at third-grade level. She cultivates a culture of scholarship in the classroom — they even call each other “scholars.” This becomes intensely motivating to students, and they have a great payoff when, by the end of the year, they’ve managed to elevate their grades to the third-grade level, just as she had promised. There was a tremendous amount of hard work that went into that on a daily basis. Obviously, the vision doesn’t realize itself. But for people to go through the effort that it takes to change, they want to know why it’s worth it. Being able to paint the picture of that destination — something that we call a “destination postcard” — helps people to see why it’s worth the journey. 

Brosnan: There’s a similar story about Molly Howard, a principal at a Georgia school, who changes the culture from one with a fixed mindset to one with a growth mindset by doing something simple, yet innovative. The heart of her change involved changing the grading system from the classic system to A, B, C, and NY — NY standing for “Not Yet.” 

Heath: The school had always had a two-track mindset: college-bound students and vocational students. The teachers had an ingrained attitude that some students can handle college-bound work and others can’t. Molly Howard was appalled by this. She said that, in her school, all of the students would be college bound and the teachers were going to treat them that way. They’re not going to have two tracks of classes. One of the manifestations of that philosophy is that she overhauled the grading system in the way you described: A, B, C, NY. Not Yet. It sends such a positive message to students that grades are not a referendum on your ability. Grades are a reward for effort. Getting a D or F suggests that one is not capable of the work. But a “Not Yet” rejects that idea that you might be incapable of it. It’s a good example of what Stanford researcher Carol Dweck calls the “growth mindset,” which is the idea that you can always get better, that ability and skills are like muscles; if you work them out, they get stronger. In her research, she found that many of the highest-performing athletes and musicians share the belief that no matter how good they are, they can always get a little bit better. Molly Howard just applied the concept to her school. 

Brosnan: It makes me wonder why you and Chip, as you note in Switch, gave up on salsa dancing. 

Heath: That was a classic fixed-mindset thing to do. In the book, we talk about how we tried salsa lessons a few times and then gave up, concluding, “Oh, we must be bad salsa dancers.” That mindset is a hard thing to fight. As adults, we lose patience with ourselves. But it’s crazy to think that change will be instant and effortless. Kids don’t think that way. There is no child alive who gets Guitar Hero, plays it three times, and gives up, concluding that he or she was born bad at Guitar Hero. And there’s no parent who would decide that if her daughter fell down on her bike on her third try that she’s obviously no good at riding bikes. The only way to get good at something is to practice and to stretch yourself, which necessitates failure. And, yet, as adults — particularly in an organizational environment — we’re still so cautious of failure that we tend to avoid anything new. The bottom line is: There is no change without some early and intermediate failure. And if, when failure comes, you treat it as an excuse to get off the path, then that’s almost a guarantee of defeat. 

Brosnan: With adults, there tends to be a high level of embarrassment at not being good at something. My sense is that the embarrassment factor pushes people to stay in their comfort zone. 

Heath: There’s a path of least resistance for all of us. It takes self-control for us to endure the frustrations of having to do something that is difficult. That’s why education leaders should think carefully about the volume of change that they are contemplating. There’s good reason to believe that no one should be setting seven New Year’s resolutions. That’s guaranteed to exhaust one’s self-control. There’s no reason to believe that each year should bring a new overhaul of behavior. I love what football coach Bill Parcells said. With his team, he talked about goals that are “within immediate reach.” Once his players start reaching these goals during the preseason, they start to believe they are the kind of people who can succeed. I think there’s a lot of power to that mindset. It’s not about an abrupt transition between states. It’s more of a snowballing process where you set up a series of small wins that accumulate. 

Brosnan: My favorite snowballing story in Switch is about Miner County, South Dakota. The county is steadily losing population. Many people would like to turn things around, but no one knows what to do. Then a group of high school students in the town of Howard gets involved. The students do some research, then come back to county officials and tell them that if the residents spend just 10 percent more of their earned income within the county, that will bring in an additional $7 million in revenue. Basically what they’ve done is what you’d advise them to do: shrink the problem and provide a path. 

Heath: One principle at work here is that ambiguity is the enemy of change. There wasn’t a person in Miner County who didn’t appreciate the goal of making it a better place to live, of attracting growth and keeping young people there. But their desire, by itself, didn’t guarantee that anything would change. The problem was that they didn’t know how to change things. What can one person do to increase the health of the county? I think a lot of educational reformers struggle with this as well. No one opposes the self-actualization of students. The question is, What can one person do to contribute to that outcome? What they did so brilliantly in Miner County was to give everyone something practical and achievable that they could do to contribute. In their case, the mission was to spend more money locally. The larger lesson for leaders is to squeeze out the ambiguity from the change you seek. If you want change, you’ve got to get crystal clear about what actions are involved. 

Brosnan: About midway through Switch, I noticed that even in the examples of success there is always some percentage of people who are not changing their behavior. For instance, in your section on the value of “action triggers” — predetermined events that will trigger us to make steps towards personal change — you note that just having action triggers, in one study, changed the success rate from 22 percent to 62 percent. This is an impressive leap of almost 300 percent. Still, I can’t help but notice that 38 percent of people are not changing at all. Is it inevitable that, when introducing change into an organization, you’re not going to get everyone on board?

Heath: I’m of the opinion that there’s no good reason to give up on anyone completely. People respond differently depending on the environment. If you have initiated a transformation that two-thirds of the teachers and staff have bought into, chances are pretty good that you are going to get the final third in time. 

Ultimately, social pressure will become an ally for change. If you’ve stayed in a hotel recently, you’ve seen the little signs that say, “Please help us save water and the planet by reusing your towels.” There were some psychologists who saw those signs and said, nope, that’s the wrong message. They advised one hotel manager to change the signs to say, “A majority of guests in this hotel reuse their towels at least once,” to make it clear what the social norm is. And they were right: Guests were 26 percent more likely to reuse their towels. Behavior is contagious! But behavior can’t be contagious unless it’s visible. If you are leading change within a school, you have to make sure that, when people change successfully, it’s visible. I’ve been in a lot of schools where, in essence, teachers are lone rangers. They rule over their own domains, but they may not even be aware of what other teachers are doing. Make sure their successes are visible so they can spread. Behavior is contagious. 

Brosnan: This also speaks to your notion of “bright spots.” 

Heath: That’s another tool for the leader. Psychologists tell us that we’re wired to focus on the problems. In almost any change situation, our first inclination is to say, “What’s broken and how do we fix it?” What is unnatural to say is, “What’s working and how can we do more of it?” Let’s say that, as a head of school, you’ve created some new protocol. Two of your teachers are doing it brilliantly, six are in the middle, and two are failing outright and complaining about it the whole way. Most heads would spend most of their time focusing on those two failing teachers. But that’s exactly the wrong approach. You should spend your time studying those two who have nailed it and figure out what has allowed them to succeed. Did they invent their own systems for putting the change into place? Do they have interesting ways to reduce the amount of resistance in their classroom to the ideas? If you can figure out what allowed some people to succeed, you can clone it. That’s what we call “finding the bright spots.” Organizations need to change this inclination of always trying to fix problems, and, instead, think about what’s working today and how can they do more of it. 

Brosnan: There’s a parallel issue with the “fundamental attribution error.” The problem isn’t always with the people; it’s with the environment. 

Heath: One of the findings from psychology is that we tend to attribute the way people act to their character rather than to the situation they are in. But this is a mistake, because the environment has enormous impact on people’s behavior. Just think about the way a person acts at a ballgame versus the way that person would at church. We have exquisite social antenna that determine the way we act in different social situations. And the thing is, you can change people’s situations a lot more easily than you can change their core character. So, this should be good news for organizational leaders.

There’s a good example in Switch. A principal named Natalie Elder signed on at the worst elementary school in Tennessee. Her school is just pure chaos. There are parents roaming the halls, plucking their kids out of school in the middle of lessons. You know, pandemonium in the hallways, kids cursing, the police coming occasionally to deal with the problems. She realizes that her first mission is to just achieve stability, a sense of calmness, to make this into a place where it is possible for students to learn. So, she has a brilliant idea. She realizes that it all starts in the morning. The kids are already riled up by the time they get to their first class — and she knows if she loses them in the first 30 minutes of the day, she’s not going to get them back. So she begins to consciously change their environment. She puts the teachers and staff on shifts to meet the students when they are dropped off in the circle in front of the school. Then, they walk the students calmly inside the building. All of a sudden, with that one action, the staff has managed to start the day with order. Then, Elder starts every day with an assembly that has the same routine, so students know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s an order to things. The students are asked to walk with “traveling arms” — essentially keeping their hands to themselves in the hallway.

What I love about this story is that, if you had been dropped into this school before Elder took over and had seen the way students were behaving, you’d have immediately started to make judgments about the students. They’re out of control! But then fast-forward to later in Elder’s term there and it’s a very different school. It wasn’t that the character of the people changed. It was that the environment changed in a way that allowed them to be better. 

As a leader, you need to stop thinking about how you can get your “bad” people to be better, and start thinking about what kind of environment you can create in which your people will naturally act in better ways. 

Brosnan: What do schools do with long-time faculty members who are just not interested in change of any kind? An example would be, say, an English teacher who has successfully taught students for years by focusing on primarily white male authors. In recent years, the school has become much more of a diverse institution, and wants the curriculum to be more inclusive. How does the school work with the teacher who has been set in his or her ways for years?

Heath: Any time people resist change, I tend to think that there is one of three explanations. One, they don’t know exactly what is expected of them. Two, they just don’t want to change. Three, they may actually be sympathetic to the change, but there are too many obstacles in their way. If we take these one by one, we may come up with inspiration for how to deal with our reluctant English teacher.

First, does the English teacher realize what exactly is expected of him? In other words, have you allowed this to become an abstract debate about the role of diversity in literature, or are you talking about the facts? Because if the facts are that he needs to stop teaching, say, two books and start teaching two other books, you might find that the resistance is much less extreme than you thought. In other words, it’s not an abstract debate about diversity — it’s a request to teach two great books by authors who are neither white nor male. 

Second, if he just doesn’t feel like it, realize that there’s probably some emotion in play. The teacher may think, “I’ve always done it this way and I’m proud of the way I’ve done it.” Or there may be some identity element involved. He might think, “I’m not the kind of person who values diversity above what I perceive to be artistic merit.” If someone has that point of view, you are not going to change their minds by assaulting their identity. You won’t win by making him feel inferior to other people or by accusing him of being a dinosaur. There’s a lot of research on change that says, most often when we change, we change because we feel something, not because we learn some new facts. So, you might ask yourself, “How can I get this English teacher to feel something that shows him or her why it might be valuable to include other voices?” What might that look like? Could he take a field trip to another class with another teacher who includes different voices so he can see that students actually do get more engaged? Could he interview an African-American student who has graduated from another high school having never read the work of an African-American author in school, and hear what that felt like? 

The final piece is that there could well be obstacles in the way. Keep in mind that this teacher has lesson plans, he has resources, he has materials for the old way of doing things. If you want him to change, a good way to increase your odds is to make it easier for him to change. Can you arrange for him to get good supplemental materials that would allow him to teach the new works? Can you borrow lesson plans of other teachers? Can you do anything in your power to smooth the path so the change is a little easier? 

Again, none of this guarantees that change will come easily or magically. But the point is that there is a reliable strategy for thinking through changes that is bound to improve your odds.

Michael Brosnan

Michael Brosnan was the longtime editor of Independent School magazine.