Change Made Simple – Direct the Rider

by Stephen Mills on March 4, 2010


This is the second part of the series on change made simple.  It is based upon the excellent book by Chip and Dan Heath: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.  You can read the overview here: Change Made Simple – Overview.

In this article we discuss the first of the three main components of the process – Direct the Rider.  Directing the rider is all about providing clarity to yourself or others.  It’s about solving specific problems and taking specific actions instead of trying to boil the whole ocean.

Find The Bright Spots

To pursue the bright spots is to ask the question “What’s working and how can we do more of it?”

I thought this chapter of the book was a very good one, but you are going to have to read it to get the full effect.  The bottom line strategy here is to stop focusing on problems and instead look for things that are already working.  Once you find these bright spots, simply expand them and do more of those things.  After reading this it sounded like obvious common sense.  However, people almost always focus on fixing problems instead of focusing on solutions that already exist.  This is really brilliant advice and I’m already thinking about many situations in which I can look for the bright spots and expand them.

Many real-world examples are provided.  In one case, a man named Jerry Sternin went to Vietnam to try and help address a decades long problem of malnutrition in children.  He had little time or resources to address what looked like an intractable problem with poverty and lack of education.  Those standard explanations were already in play and they were huge problems that would require massive expenditures of resources to even attempt to address.

Instead of writing position papers on these known factors, Jerry Sternin searched the villages looking for well-nourished children who might be exceptions to the general problem.  He was looking for the bright spots in a sea of malnutrition.  He found them, he discovered the simple solution, and he worked with the villagers to expand that solution to nearly 3 million other children.

The authors tell stories of changes in medical practices, changes in delinquent behavior at school, and other examples where people with little resources or authority were able to bring about big changes by simply looking for what worked and doing more of it.

This is a simple, direct, and elegant approach.

Script the Critical Moves

To spark movement in a new direction, you need to provide crystal clear guidance.  That’s why scripting is important – you’ve got to think about the specific behavior that you’d want to see in a tough moment…

The bottom line here is that in trying to change, analysis paralysis will disrupt  and cause a retreat into the status quo default.  The authors describe research in human behavior that support their point.  People with more choice are less like to choose and therefore less likely to change.

“The status quo feels comfortable and steady because much of the choice as been squeezed out.  You have your routines, your ways of doing things.”

“Successful change requires a translation of ambiguous goals into concrete behaviors.  In short, to make a switch you need to script the critical moves.”

I don’t have a really good way to summarize the excellent advice in this chapter because every situation is so different.  One of the authors’ favorite examples which seemed to work very well was a 1% milk campaign.  I’m sure my friend Vin of Natural Bias would not think 1% milk was a healthy choice.  However, whether you agree with the chosen goal or not, you can’t deny the simple effectiveness of the campaign to get people to buy 1% milk.  The critical move for a healthier diet was a simple script – Buy 1% milk.  It wasn’t about eating a certain number of fat grams or calories, it wasn’t about cutting back on potato chips.  It was a simple script to change from whole milk to 1% milk.  If you want people to eat healthy you need to provide a specific and simple script.  Saying “eat healthy” or “follow the food pyramid” isn’t going to accomplish anything.

You can’t script every move, and you don’t want to.  However, you want to script the critical moves.  If I look at the maintenance schedule of my car, it is quite complicated.  I can’t possibly keep track of what maintenance is needed when.  However, I would wager that most American car owners are aware of the basic script – change your oil every three months or every 3,000 miles.  That one simple script is all you need to remember because when you take it to the shop, they will tell you what other maintenance is recommended at your current mileage.

“To the Rider, a big problem calls for a big solution.  But if you seek out a solution that’s as complex as the problem, you’ll get the Food Pyramid and nothing will change.  (The Rider will just spin his wheels trying to make sense of it.)  The Rider has to be jarred out of introspection, out of analysis.  He needs a script that explains how to act.”

Point to the Destination

You have a choice about how to use the Rider’s energy: By default, he’ll obsess about which way to move, or whether it’s necessary to move at all.  But you can redirect that energy to helping you navigate toward the destination.  For that to happen you need a gut-smacking goal…

This is a decently long chapter in the book with a lot of good real-world examples making it clear that you need a compelling destination for change to happen.  There is not a lot of description or analysis that I can provide in a summary however.  The point of this chapter is that for change to happen you need a destination that invests you emotionally in the destination, what the authors above called a “gut –smacking” goal.

Goals that lack emotion, and are just SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, Timely) don’t work well for change.  You need to point clearly to the destination, make it simple and easy to understand, and make it compelling.

“When you describe a compelling destination, you are helping to correct one of the Rider’s greatest weaknesses – the tendency to get lost in analysis.”

What do YOU think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Nea | Self Improvement Saga March 5, 2010 at 2:52 pm

I’ve definitely been one of those people who gets stuck analyzing, so I can truly appreciate the suggestions here. I can’t wait to get my copy of Switch.
.-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog ..5 Steps to Easily Influencing People Without Manipulation =-.


Motivational Speaker - Craig Harper March 8, 2010 at 5:19 am

Thanks for the post Stephen.

You definitely need to gain some clarity and certainty.
Get clear about what you want and don’t want for your life. Stop going through the motions and stop living that repetitive existence of habit – the one that makes you miserable and the one you really don’t want. The more certain you are about what you want, the easier it will be to stay focused, proactive and productive. If you don’t have clarity, then do your best to de-clutter your mind, step back, gain some perspective, spend more time by yourself, stop being so ‘busy’ (even for a day) and listen to that still small voice; it knows. When we make the effort to find some space, time and quiet and then genuinely listen, the clarity will come. The tricky bit can be when we find that clarity (about what we need to do) and it scares the crap out of us.
.-= Motivational Speaker – Craig Harper´s last blog ..Exercise Intensity =-.


Eduard @ People Skills Decoded March 9, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Hey Steve,

I like the idea of finding the bright spots. Seems to me that a lot of us focus mostly on what does not work and how to fix it, rather than on what does work and how to do more of it. But from my perspective, efficiency comes from combining the two.

PS: Changed my blog name, as you can see.



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