Chip Heath: Get over your fear of change

Bestselling author and Stanford business professor Chip Heath on why we're programmed to resist change — even when it's in our best interest.

In 2007, Chip Heath, a professor of organizational behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and his brother Dan Heath, a senior fellow at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, were catapulted to the top of bestseller lists across North America with the release of their popular marketing guide, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. In their latest book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, the Heath brothers examine how business leaders and managers cope with evolution in their work environments. Specifically, the authors wanted to know why smart people often resist change — even when those changes are in their best interest. Recently, Chip Heath spoke with Canadian Business Calgary-based contributor Michelle Magnan about why our brains are programmed to struggle with change, how to overcome that struggle, and whether you really can teach an old dog new tricks.

We often hear the phrase, “people never really change.” Do you believe that’s true?

I think that was the first surprise we came to in researching about change. People don’t hate change, even though our culture tells us that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. People get married every day and people look forward to the birth of their first child. If resisting change is your goal, having kids is a deeply dumb decision. The real paradox is: Why do we embrace change in some situations and resist it in others?

You explain in the book that this paradox has something to do with the way our brains are hard-wired. Can you explain?

The internal conflict is that our analytical, rational side may say, “I want a better beach body,” but our emotional side says, “I want the Oreo cookie.” So at work, for example, we may want to change how we treat customers, but our emotional side is in love with the comfort of routine. We need to align those two conflicting sides of ourselves.

How do we do that?

First, you’ve got to convince the emotional side of yourself to go along with the change. That happens naturally with parents anticipating the birth of their first child. They say, “I want to be a great parent.” It’s the same thing with marriage. Nobody signs up to get married because someone says, “Let me explain to you why we should get married.” [These are emotional decisions.] So, at work, if we talk about change using slides in a PowerPoint presentation, and we simply explain to people why they need to change, then we’re only motivating the rational, analytical side.

Can you give a concrete example of how an employer might engage their employees’ emotional side?

One story we found is about a metal can company in Brazil called Brasilata. It’s a boring industry. You wouldn’t think of it as being an innovative business. But what they did is they created an emotional identity around the idea that every employee is supposed to be an innovator. When you sign up to work at Brasilata, you sign an innovation contract that says you will bring your mind to work, you will be motivated to look for things we can do differently. You have front-line employees who believe, “I’m supposed to be Thomas Edison.” What’s amazing is they get an incredible number of suggestions every year from their employees — 145 suggestions per year, per employee. For example, one of Brasilata’s employees suggested a design that enabled them to produce more robust cans that use less metal at the same time. It’s remarkable.

So the goal, then, is to really get employees thinking about change in ways that are more concrete?

Yes. One of the problems businesses have is they talk about change on an abstract level but don’t script the behaviour that would actually tell employees what to do now, what to do tomorrow. The same applies in our personal lives. We all know we should eat better, but diet advice is typically very vague. But if all North Americans would give up one can of soda a day, that would amount to 10 pounds lost in a year. It’s a very different way of saying it — and this second way is more likely to change behaviour.

How do you “script behaviour” and appeal to employees’ creative side at the same time?

I worked with a small entrepreneur who built playgrounds in the back of people’s homes. He was frustrated with his employees on the front line who were building these things. The construction process is sporadic — you might work two hours one day and eight hours the next — so his customers never knew when people would be working in their backyard or not. He wanted [his employees] to have more of a customer-service mindset, and he told them that. As an employee, your brain goes nowhere with that. You don’t know how to do it. When I ran a seminar with this guy and a bunch of small-business owners, the other owners said to him, “I can see why your employees are having a problem, because you’re talking about this on an abstract level. What does it actually mean to have that mindset?” The solution was very simple: you knock on the door at the beginning and at the end of the day. At the beginning, say, “We’ll be working two hours today.” And at the end, say, “We’re waiting on a part and will be back in two days.” All of a sudden, it feels like a change that can be made because it’s so much more scripted.

How else do companies blunder when it comes to implementing change?

Another thing we found is that, especially in the time of big economic crisis, when things are not going well, the analytical side of our minds is really attuned to focusing on failure. We obsess about failure. If you ask sports fans how their teams did after a weekend of games, they’ll spend more time analyzing the games their teams lost than they will analyzing the games their teams won. In business, that tendency to focus on the negative is not necessarily going to get you anywhere. What we find is people are more productive when they focus on what’s working and how can we do more of it.

Where do you think this tendency to go to the negative comes from?

People focus on what’s scary. If the emotional side of your mind gets scared, you get tunnel vision. And that’s the last thing you want to have when you’re trying to change. Police officers in the United States talk about “weapons focus.” If somebody has been held up at gunpoint, they can’t tell you how tall or short the guy was, but they can describe the gun in detail. If you want people to get creative, focusing on some element of hope is helpful in freeing them up to think creatively and to think how can we do more of this.

Can you give an example of how an employer might do this?

There is a company called Genentech that sells front-line treatments for cancer. They came out with a drug for asthma that was remarkably effective, called Xolair. The drug had these remarkable medical properties, but it wasn’t selling as well as they wanted. Xolair is not a standard inhaler or pill kind of drug. It is something that you get through an IV drip at the doctor’s office once a month, and asthma specialists were not used to that method of infusion. Nurses didn’t know how to handle it. So of course they obsessed about failure. But in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, there were two salespeople who were selling massively more than other people were. It turns out they were doing some very replicable things. Those successful sales reps smoothed the elements on the path toward the solution — they held classes for the nurses and helped people figure out how to submit their claims. That’s a classic example of how focusing on bright spots immediately gives you ideas on how to effectively do things in the future: don’t focus on the sales reps who aren’t selling. See if there’s something you can learn from the people who are selling.

How would you say dealing with change at work is different from dealing with it in your personal life?

The principles are the same. One we talk about is “shaping the path to behaviour.” We have a tension in our minds between the part of us that wants to change and the part of us that doesn’t. But what if you could shape the environment to make that willpower struggle less pervasive? So, for dieters, shaping the path might mean you take your dinner plates and store them at the top of the cabinet, and you eat off your salad plates. You’ll trick your mind into thinking you’ve eaten a full plate of food. A corporate equivalent of that is to think about how Amazon has shaped the path with their one-click ordering button. They make it as easy as possible for customers to behave in the right way. What most people don’t know about Amazon is they have a patent on one-click ordering. It seems like an obvious idea. The patent stood up under challenge because, of all the dot-com companies selling things on the Internet, no one had removed every barrier to change like Amazon had managed to do.

Why focus so much on change in particular, though? Why not focus on doing what you already do, only better?

You always encounter changes in business — new companies enter the marketplace, new products. It certainly seems plausible that if you’re better at responding to changes, you’re going to be faster and more nimble than your competitors. An example is the automobile industry in North America — it has not adapted very well, and it has suffered. I think, especially in the economic downturn, everybody recognizes there are some things we need to change. But change is scary, and it can be paralyzing. Most people grapple intellectually with the fact they need to make a change, but they don’t have an idea of how to get started.