Posts Tagged 'Dan Heath'

“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem”

I like ideas that absolve people of blame. That’s the most consistent theme in all of my work. I don’t like blaming people’s nature or behavior for things. I like blaming systems and structures and environments for things. — Malcolm Gladwell

I like ideas that cause me to question conventional wisdom, to think more deeply about my own often unexamined cultural assumptions.

Malcolm Gladwell’s perspective is just such an idea, one that I am willing to grapple with because of the respect I have for his work even though I don’t immediately agree with the idea.

Gladwell recognizes the influence of environment and of systems and structures, powerful forces that are often invisible to those who are profoundly affected  by them.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath extend that line of thought in this essay I first published in May 2010. 

“Shape the path” to influence change

“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” — Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain the change process this way in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: “For individual behavior to change, you’ve got to influence not only their environment but their hearts and minds.” To explain their ideas they offer the metaphor of an elephant with a rider, with the intellect represented by the rider and emotions by the elephant. 

The rider plans and directs; the elephant provides the energy. They extend the metaphor by including “the path,” the situation or environment in which the rider and elephant find themselves. Leaders’ work, then, is to guide the change effort through clarity of purpose and direction, motivate the elephant by engaging people’s emotions, and “shape the path” to enable the desired performance. Previous essays described ways to affect “the rider” and “the elephant.”

To help us understand the power of the path, the Heath brothers ask readers to note how many times a day someone has tweaked their environment to shape their behavior (examples include lane markers on roads, the location of displays in groceries stores, and ATM machines that made it difficult for you to leave your card or cash).

The Heaths stress the power of culture and habits to shape behavior. “People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture…,” they write. “Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious…. To change yourself or other people, you’ve got to change habits….” 

Noting that even small environmental changes can make a difference, they suggest “action triggers” in which you create a mental plan that includes a time and place in which you’ll engage in a particular action. “Action triggers simply have to be specific enough and visible enough to interrupt people’s normal stream of consciousness,” the Heaths note.

Chip and Dan Heath also suggest the development of habits and routines as ways to shape the environment because they create a kind of “behavioral autopilot.” In addition, they encourage the use of checklists to remind people of important behaviors that might otherwise be overlooked.

The Heaths use the phrase “rally the herd” to describe ways in which organizational culture and peer influence can be used to promote the desired behavior, citing efforts to promote “designated drivers” in the 1980s as an example of cultivating cultural influence to shape behavior. Meeting agreements and group protocols are examples of ways leaders shape habits and routines and cultivate high-performance cultures.

Ways school leaders might shape the path:

Meeting agreements: Establish meeting agreements (some people call them “norms”) that establish group expectations regarding meeting behavior (for instance, arrive on time and stay until the meeting’s conclusion, be fully engaged, and do not say anything outside the meeting you have not said in it).

Protocols: Use protocols to shape meeting behavior, whether the meeting is for the primary purpose of professional learning, problem solving, or decision making.

Action triggers: To establish new behaviors/habits, imagine yourself in a future situation doing a desired behavior. Trigger the behavior through a notation in your calendar, to-do list, or post-it on your bathroom mirror.

Take a moment now to…

• select one of the methods above to “shape the path” regarding improvements in your own leadership practice or for a significant change effort in the school community.

Break the script of small talk

“Break the script” in some part of your life that has grown too routine. —Dan Heath 

Resilient people often “break the script” of expected behavior, which is a recommendation offered by Dan Heath In an interview with author Gretchen Rubin in which Heath encourages us to alter parts of our lives that have grown too routine.

One of the script-breaking practices he recommends is to “push beyond small talk with someone in your life.”

Heath adds: “When someone asks you ‘How are you?’, and you’re just about to give the automatic answer, ‘Fine, how are you?’, take a breath. Then give the actual answer. Share something real—maybe something you’re struggling with. Trust that the other person will care and reciprocate with something real from their life. You may be amazed at how such a simple moment can deepen a relationship.”

While small talk has its benefits, including increasing our comfort during routine social encounters and easing us into deeper conversations, it also has its limitations.

The benefits of “big talk” include more intellectually and emotionally-engaging conversations, deeper relationships, and the possibility of learning important things about ourselves and others.

In what situations and with what people have you or might you break the script of small talk for the benefit of others and yourself?

The challenge of changing ourselves and influencing others

A quality shared by most resilient people is the ability to see the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be.

As a result, they understand that:

• Changing ourselves is hard, even when our health and lives may depend on it.

• Changing others is harder.

• Changing organizational culture and practices is even harder because it combines the difficulties of changing ourselves and others with the challenge of overcoming institutional inertia and active resistance.

In addition, most of us significantly underestimate what’s required to alter long-standing habits of mind and behavior in ourselves and others and to create organizational cultures of continuous improvement.

And, at the same time, we significantly overestimate the extent to which humans are rational and motivated to change because of evidence and logic.

That’s why reading a book, listening to an inspiring speaker, or attending a “research-based” workshop are almost always insufficient to produce long-term, meaningful change.

The essential elements of change

The most compelling explanations of what’s required to produce significant change are offered  by Alan Deutschman in Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life and by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

Deutschman explains that people make significant and lasting changes by “relating,” “repeating,” and “reframing.”

Relate underscores the importance of sustained relationships with individuals and groups to inspire hope and provide support.

Repeat involves learning, practicing, and mastering new skills until they become habits.

And reframe means finding others ways to think about a situation. Because established frames resist facts and reasoned arguments, deep-rooted beliefs and conceptual frameworks must be identified and altered to support desired changes.

A problem, Deutschman says, is that leaders too often rely on relatively ineffective change strategies—facts (human beings are not as rational as we think we are), fear (at best it’s a short-term motivator), and force (there are many ways it can be resisted) to promote change.

Instead, successful change efforts offer a sense of hopefulness that problems can be solved through a genuine sense of community that enables the acquisition of new habits.

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain that our behavior is shaped by three forces—our intellect, our emotions, and the situations in which we find ourselves.

To explain their ideas the Heaths offer the metaphor of an elephant with a rider:

The rider is our intellect. Although modest in size compared to the elephant, it plans and directs.

The elephant is emotion. It provides the energy that creates and sustains movement.

The path is the situation or environment in which the rider and elephant find themselves. that either supports improved performance or hinders it. (For example, strong teamwork requires a “path” that includes regularly-scheduled meeting time, relevant data to make decisions and assess progress, and training in group skills.)

We promote change, the Heaths say, when we:

• create clarity of purpose and direction (influence the rider),

• engage people’s emotions (motivate the elephant), and

• create environments (shape the path) that enable rather than hinder the desired performance.

What, in your experience, are the essential elements of change in individuals and organizations?

I will be taking a sabbatical during the next few months to refresh and renew. Best wishes for an enjoyable summer (or winter if you happen to be Down Under).

How “SUCCESS” can increase your influence


Successful leaders are influential. That means they are able to create energy in the school community around a common set of beliefs, ideas, and practices without directing, threatening, or manipulating others.

A primary quality of those leaders is their intellectual clarity and their ability to communicate that clarity concisely and precisely.

An effective leadership tool for creating and communicating that clarity are the “six principles of sticky ideas” described by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in their book, Made to Stick.

The Heaths use the acronym SUCCESS to capture the six principles:

Simplicty: To find the core of an idea, we must be masters of exclusion, the Heaths say. “Saying something short is not the mission—sound bites are not the idea,” they write. “Proverbs are ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound… a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.”

Unexpectedness: Getting people to pay attention sometimes requires the element of surprise. To that end, “We need to violate people’s expectations. We need to be counterintuitive,” they write. In addition, they point out that it’s important to generate interest and curiosity by “…systematically ‘opening gaps’ in their knowledge—and then filling those gaps.”

Concreteness: To make ideas clear, the Heaths say, “We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information… Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images… Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.”

Credibility: Credibility is established, the Heaths say, when people can test out the ideas  based on their own experiences. “We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves—a ‘try before you buy’ philosophy for the world of ideas.”

Emotions: “How do we get people to care about our ideas?,” the Heaths ask. “We make them feel something.”

Stories: Stories are the means by which all of the other elements are tied together in a coherent whole. A story, the Heaths say, “… provides simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act).”

These six elements are not a formula, but rather factors to consider when seeking to influence.

They remind us that we are most influential when we speak and write with proverb-like clarity; tell stories that illustrate our ideas, elicit emotion, and include the element of surprise; and provide concrete details that describe and pique curiosity.

Leaders may benefit from developing a checklist based on these six principles to help them prepare for important meetings and conversations. I’ll have more to say tomorrow about the value, power, and use of checklists.

When leaders suffer from the curse of knowledge

Dennis Sparks

I sometimes suffer from the curse of knowledge. I also suffer from the impostor syndrome (more about that tomorrow).

(Based on those two observations you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I also suffer from medical student syndrome, which causes me to believe that I have every illness I read about.)

For the moment, however, I’d like to focus on the challenges posed by knowing too much—otherwise known as “the curse of knowledge,” a term I am borrowing from Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick.

The curse of knowledge is a problem that often besets those who possess deep understanding of a subject – researchers, consultants, and even school leaders, among others.

The problem, though, isn’t the amount of knowledge one possesses, but rather our inability to communicate clearly what we know.

For example, some of the worst teaching I’ve experienced was in advanced graduate courses taught by scholars with deep knowledge of their subject matter. There was no doubt they knew the material. They had literally written the book. But they were unable to structure and explain what they knew in accessible ways.

The curse of knowledge can make it difficult for those who possess it to understand a beginner’s mind. It can make it difficult to distinguish what is central from that which is peripheral and to speak concretely rather than abstractly.

Because communicating clearly and concisely with others is an essential leadership skill, it’s important that principals and teacher leaders are aware of and address the curse of knowledge as it infects their work.

Here are a few things that school leaders can do:

1. Spend a few minutes writing about what you would like to communicate, separating what is primary from that which is of secondary importance. Engage in conversations to help you further develop your clarity.

2. Hone in on a big idea or two. Organize two or three subordinate points around each big idea. Polish each of those points to proverb-like compactness.

3. Provide concrete examples and/or offer stories to illustrate those points.

In a recent blog post, Ann Murphy Paul uses the term “curse of expertise” to discuss the same phenomenon and offers some suggestions for addressing it.

Question: In what areas do you or others on your leadership team experience the curse of knowledge? What have you done or could you do to address it to enable you to communicate or teach more effectively?

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