This book easily goes on the top of the list of books (so far) that I've read for this project. It goes right to the root of the biggest problem we have when trying to improve both ourselves and the systems we create. The book looks at the problem of change by applying as much science as possible to the issue (while acknowledging that there cannot be a "science of change").
Even better, the authors (Chip & Dan Heath) take into account that even reading about change is hard, so the book appears to use its own techniques in order to keep you engaged and following through. These are not the tricks of the typical self-help book (all self-help books, at their core, are about change): start with testimonials and rah-rah stuff, then dance around the issue so that you can't quite find where the two pages of actual ideas are buried in the book (that way, you'll actually have to buy the book to find out, which is why publishers impose this formula on self-help authors). Instead, the Heath brothers give you value up front, in the first chapter, and then develop and add to the ideas as you go, throwing in stories (examples) and changing it up to keep you interested.
They've also created a summary PDF, chapter 1 of the book, and podcasts which they encourage you to distribute. These are valuable but I think you'll still want to read the book.
They use the parable (adapted from another researcher) of the Elephant, the Rider and the Path. The Elephant is your emotions, the Rider your thinking mind (including self-control), and the Path is the environment, the road on which the Rider passes through on the back of the Elephant. The brilliance in these characterizations becomes obvious once you start looking at problems: the Elephant is big and willful, and the rider is small and proportionally weak, and easily gets tired out fighting the Elephant for control. That one image changes everything, and is backed up with numerous experiments showing that "self-control is an exhaustible resource."
When you think of it this way, many things become clear. Why is it that, every time you decide you're going to do something and try to just force it to happen, you fail? Easy: that attitude assumes that you have infinite reserves of self-control, and that it's only a matter of deciding how to use it. But if, on the contrary, discipline is actually a rare and precious commodity, then our failures become obvious: we think it's a fire hose with an infinite amount of water to douse our burning emotions, whereas it's actually a little tiny fire extinguisher which we exhaust by putting out the shrubbery in the front yard while the whole house is catching fire. But knowing that self-control is limited, we can try to use it on the most important things.
The Elephant is also a brilliant image. Why can't we make stuff happen? Because the Rider is this little person riding on the back of this huge creature. Sometimes the Rider can tug at the ears of the Elephant and yell at it and cajole it, and maybe the Elephant will go where the Rider wants, for a little while. But in the end, the Elephant goes where the Elephant wants to go, carrying an (eventually) exhausted Rider on its back. When you know this, you are not only much more compassionate about your own failures to change, but you also realize what you're working with: big, headstrong Elephant, little Rider.
Indeed, one of the most powerful ways to get things changing is to engage the Elephant. That's why stories are so powerful, because they create feelings (the political party of the Elephant knows this). Switch contains guidelines for how to do this (and how to recognize an Elephant problem).
The Rider can easily get distracted. Too much choice sends it into a tailspin of pondering, as does a lack of clear direction. Both of these things can make the Rider use up its energy before it can even start convincing the Elephant to do anything. (Here's something even odder, learned from the "Choice" episode of RadioLab: the Elephant actually helps you make decisions, and people who've lost the emotional centers of their brains become unable to choose using logic alone).
The key to change is not to force it, but instead to work within the limitations of what you have. You must keep from confusing and exhausting your Rider, by acknowledging that the Elephant is going to go where the Elephant feels like going, and you can't fight that -- but you can work with it. Indeed, when you can get the Elephant on your side, you'll definitely get where you want to go. It's also possible to modify the environment (the Path) in order to make change more likely to happen.
One of my favorite take-aways from the book is to "follow the bright spots," finding situations where things are working, and then building on those. It's fascinating: once you change your mindset and start looking, you'll be surprised at how many bright spots there are and the usefulness of this technique. But apparently our brains tend to zero in on problems; "dwell on" is probably a more apt description. Notice this the next time you're hanging out with friends and they start talking about issues, their own or someone else's. See how the focus is on problems, and how negative things tend to get. Perhaps there is some kind of natural selection to focus on problems; the people that didn't got weeded. This is perfectly sensible when the problem is "will we have enough to eat this winter?" or "how are we going to defend against raiders?" Focusing on the bright side probably isn't too helpful in those cases, but that was several phase changes ago. Now our throwback tendency to dwell on problems makes us way too negative, and is likely responsible for all kinds of health problems. The change to positive thinking doesn't happen overnight; indeed, I think I've been working on it for years before reading the book. Realizing that there are practical treasures to be mined by doing so is an added bonus.
Another excellent point is the difference between a "fixed mindset" and a "growth mindset." If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that somehow you have everything you're going to get: physical abilities, artistic talent, a knack for math, etc. It's fixed at birth -- genetics, or something like that. The problem, when you're trying to change, is that if you can't do something right away you say "well, I guess I can't do that," and give up. But with a growth mindset, you realize that "babies aren't born being able to walk," that everything is learned, and that it doesn't happen overnight. So when you don't get it right the first time, instead of giving up, you say "I am learning" and you keep trying. Now before you say "obviously, I know that I learn," it's not quite as simple as that. It's a subtle belief, and you discover your own only by seeing how you react: if you try something and give up quickly, you might have a hidden fixed mindset. I suspect I have mostly a fixed mindset with just enough of a change mindset to keep me trying things, but it's a battle. Change is exceptionally hard when people don't believe it's possible; in one story, elementary school students' math ability was completely turned around through a small amount of coaching so they realized that you weren't just "good at math," but you learned it. I'm still getting insights in math, and I took graduate courses in applied math.
This is just the kind of book that I think should be part of the first year in a business school curriculum -- practical and helpful. It might be used at Stanford, where Chip Heath teaches, and that's a start, a bright spot, which could help spread this kind of thinking throughout business schools in general.