Advise the Rider, Steer the Elephant and Shape the Path [Heath]

Photo credit: Paul Van Slembrouck

The rider, the elephant and the path are the guiding metaphors in

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Dan & Chip Heath

As described in the beautiful illustration above, the rider refers to our rational brain, the elephant refers to our emotional brain. The book focuses on behavior change and the key thesis is that most behavior change efforts fail because they are focused only at the rider. But if the change effort spooks the elephant, the rider has very little control over its movement…

They then suggest a three-part strategy, addressing the rider, the elephant and the path:

Direct The Rider

  •  Follow The Bright Spots. Investigate what’s working and clone it.
  • Script The Critical Moves. Don’t think big picture, think in terms of specific behaviors.
  • Point To The Destination. Change is easier when you know where you’re going and why it’s worth it.

Motivate The Elephant

  • Find The Feeling. Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. Make people feel something.
  • Shrink The Change. Break down the change until it no longer spooks the elephant.
  • Grow Your People. Cultivate a sense of identity and instill the growth mindset.

Shape The Path

  • Tweak The Environment. When the situation changes, the behavior changes. So change the situation.
  • Build Habits. When behavior is habitual, it’s “free” and doesn’t tax the Rider. Look for ways to encourage habits.
  • Rally The Herd. Behavior is contagious. Help it spread.

It’s probably been 5 years since I read Switch. I found myself thinking about the rider/elephant/path metaphor recently from a different lens — the lens of organizational design.

Many organizational design strategies suffer from the same myopia as the conventional behavior change strategies — being overly focused on the rider, the rational mind, and forgetting to account for the two other critical elements — the elephant and the path.

What would it look like to design organizations and human systems with the rider/elephant/path metaphor at their core?

One interesting difference between a behavior change strategy and an organizational design strategy, is that since the former is focused on the conditions of the system at the time of the specific desired behavior change, it therefore views the relationship between the rider and the elephant as fixed. In an organizational design strategy, we design for a continuous stream of interactions, and therefore can, and I would argue should, view the relationship between the rider and the elephant as dynamic. We can design with an intention to influence that relationship.

The strategy can therefore be formulated with a longer view in mind:

Grow the Rider, Tame the Elephant, Shape the Path

Advise the Rider, Steer the Elephant and Shape the Path [Heath]

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