The St. Lucia Parrot was projected for extinction by 2000. But in 1977, Paul Butler helped turn the tide … by helping the people of St. Lucia begin to cherish “our bird.” (More)

Switch, Part II: Motivating the Elephant

This week Morning Feature explores Chip and Dan Heath’s 2010 book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Yesterday we began with solutions involving what Jonathan Haidt calls the Rider, our conscious, analytical thinking. Today we see solutions involving the Elephant, our subconscious, emotional thinking. Saturday we’ll conclude with solutions involving the Path, the situation surrounding the Elephant and Rider.

The Heath brothers have written three books, including Made to Stick, which we discussed in 2010 and again in 2012. Chip is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, teaching courses on business strategy and organizations. He has consulted with clients ranging from Google and Gap to The Nature Conservancy and the American Heart Association. Dan is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which supports social entrepreneurs. He previously worked as a researcher and case writer for Harvard Business School.

Find the Feeling

We often imagine Big Change coming as the result of Big Thinking. But as Harvard Business School professor John Kotter and consultant Dan Cohen wrote in The Heart of Change, Big Change more often comes as the result of Big Feeling.

When John Stegner wanted to convince his colleagues to adopt centralized purchasing, he looked into a single item: work gloves worn in the company’s factories. He found the factories were buying 424 different kinds of gloves, from different suppliers, with each factory purchasing department negotiating on their own. A pair of gloves that cost $5 at one factory cost $17 at another. But he didn’t present that data in a spreadsheet or PowerPoint slide show. Instead, Stegner sent a summer intern to each factory, gathered a sample of each glove, and tagged them with the price paid. He then piled all of the gloves on the table in the conference room. When his colleagues walked in, Stegner didn’t have to analyze the problem for their Riders. Their Elephants saw – and felt – the problem.

Change isn’t only about feeling problems. In 1992, Target was a $3 billion retailer selling mostly the same clothes you might find at their $30 billion rival, Wal-Mart. Robin Waters was hired to manage Target’s clothing line, and her assignment was to make the store an “upscale discounter.” But she didn’t have the corporate authority to mandate solutions. Instead she bought bags of brightly-colored M&Ms from FAO Schwarz and poured them into glass bowls at meetings. “People would go ‘Wow,'” she later recalled, “and I’d say ‘See, look at your reaction to color.'” Then she would show them displays that mixed the neutral colors popular at the time with a bright, bold tee or polo shirt. “Yup, that blue color pops!”

Target began to set rather than follow casual fashion trends, and grew into a $63 billion retail behemoth, in part because Waters helped her colleagues’ Elephants see – and feel – a solution. As the Heath brothers write:

Kotter and Cohen observed that, in almost all successful change efforts, the sequence of change is not ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE, but rather SEE-FEEL-CHANGE. You’re presented with evidence that makes you feel something. It might be a disturbing look at the problem, or a hopeful glimpse of the solution, or a sobering reflection on your current habits, but regardless, it’s something that hits you at the emotional level. It’s something that speaks to the Elephant.

Shrink the Change

Hotel maids work hard, but most don’t think of that as “exercise.” In a 2007 study Alia Crum and Ellen Langer found that two-thirds of the maids they interviewed said they didn’t exercise regularly, and over a third said they didn’t exercise at all. Crum and Langer documented the maids’ work and totaled up the calories burned: 40 by changing linens for 15 minutes, 100 in a half-hour of vacuuming, etc. They divided the maids into two groups and told both groups about the benefits of exercise … but they told only one group that their daily work as maids was excellent exercise, and gave them the calorie-burning statistics as proof. Four weeks later, they were astonished to find that the maids who had been told their daily work was excellent exercise had lost an average of 1.8 pounds. The other maids, told only about the benefits of exercise, had on average lost no weight at all.

Crum and Langer ruled out several explanations. There were too many maids in the study for this to be simply a statistical fluke. None of the maids reported having taken up exercise outside of work. They weren’t working more hours. They hadn’t changed their diets, or their consumption of alcohol, caffeine, or tobacco. In the end, the researchers decided this was a classic example of the placebo effect.

But the Heath brothers disagree. Crum and Langer had asked whether the maids began exercising outside of work, but they hadn’t asked whether the maids who were told about their “exercise” had changed how they worked. The Heath brothers speculate that. once those maids learned they were already “exercising” at work, they found ways exercise more at work – scrubbing a bit more vigorously, walking a bit faster, etc. – perhaps without even knowing it. Like patrons are more likely to use a discount card that comes with one or two visits pre-punched, showing the maids how much they were already exercising “shrank the change” … helping them past our inherent reluctance to start something new from square zero.

The Heath brothers also offer stories showing how small, easily-reachable initial goals can “shrink the change” and get our Elephants moving when a big, currently-out-of-reach ultimate goal would make us balk. Those early successes also help us gain confidence, not only shrinking the change … but growing the Elephant.

“This parrot is ours.”

Growing the Elephant is often the key to change, as Paul Butler discovered on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. When he arrived on the island, he recognized that saving the St. Lucia Parrot would require changes in local laws, such as fines for killing the birds and establishing a sanctuary to protect its habitat. But neither he nor his employer – the island’s forestry service – could change those laws.

Worse, there was no mandate for change. Most St. Lucians took the parrot for granted, and some even ate it. It wasn’t the key to any ecosystem, nor did it (yet) offer any economic benefit to the island. A cost-benefit appeal to local leaders’ Riders would have left the parrot to die off. So he appealed to their Elephants:

In essence, Butler’s goal was to convince St. Lucians that they were the kind of people who protected their own. In public events, Butler stressed, “This parrot is ours. Nobody has this but us. We need to cherish it and look after it.” He did everything in his power to make the public more familiar with the bird. He hosted St. Lucia Parrot puppet shows, distributed T-shirts, cajoled a local band to record songs about the bird, convinced local hotels to print up bumper stickers, recruited volunteers to dress up in parrot costumes and visit local schools, and asked local ministers to cite relevant Bible verses (for instance, verses that instructed believers to be good stewards of things that were in their trust). He even talked a telecom company into printing up St. Lucia Parrot calling cards.

As St. Lucians began to take pride in their parrot, public support grew for laws to protect it. Poaching ended, the parrot population began to recover, and the St. Lucia Parrot now stars in the island’s culture and one of its tourist draws.

As Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck detailed in her landmark Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, our identities are far less fixed than we imagine. Seeing ourselves – and others – as “growing” is often the difference between change and stagnation. From reassuring math-frightened students that “Everything is hard before it is easy” to reminding colleagues that mistakes are inevitable and often invaluable learning opportunities, to encouraging St. Lucians to think “This bird is ours” … change often hinges on helping the Elephant grow into the kind of person who can embrace and achieve it.

Tomorrow we’ll see how we can also help the Rider and the Elephant embrace change by creating a smoother, more welcoming Path.


Happy Friday!