Switch – my Amazon Review

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

Not all change is difficult.

We change all the time, voluntarily, in many different ways – we get married, we start a family, we take up a new job or a new role, we change ideas…

just think of much you changed in the last 10 years!

Based on this insight, the question is: what are the characteristics of successful change?

Chip and Dan Heath set out on a quest to find what works to make change easier, at any scale – individual, organizational, societal.

And in doing so they dispel 3 big myths about change: that some people are just hard to change, it is in their nature; that people are lazy, and that is why they do not change; that there is a “resistance” to change.

To illustrate their findings, the authors borrow Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the Elephant and the Rider: the conscious, analytical part of ourselves is like a rider perched on top of an elephant, the adaptive unconscious.

The rider has the ability to plan, to analyze, to make rational choices – but it also has the tendency to spin its wheels and over-analyze, and it stands no chance guiding the elephant with brute force, at least not in the long run.

The elephant gives us drive and power, but it is easily distracted by short term rewards.

The authors use this simple metaphor as a framework to make sense of some useful strategies for change, based on research and illustrated with vivid, “sticky” stories – these strategies are grouped in 3 sections:  how to “direct the rider”, how to “engage the elephant” and how to “shape the path”.

I am a Solution-Focused practitioner, so I was very happy to see Solution-Focused Brief Therapy featured in this book. It appears, together with Appreciative Inquiry, in the section about Directing the Rider, in the chapter “Find the Bright Spots”.

As the authors themselves point out, an effective approach to change involves all 3 dimensions (rider, elephant, path), and sometimes this distinction is pretty fuzzy.

I believe Solution-Focus interviewing protocols to be a case in point:

– when we, as Solution-Focused practitioners, ask exception-finding questions, we “find the bright spots” (chapter one)

– when we, as Solution-Focused practitioners,  ask for concrete, behavioral details about what works, we help clients “script the critical moves” (chapter two)

– when we, as Solution-Focused practitioners, ask the Miracle Question, we “point [the rider] to the destination” (chapter 3) and we also help the elephant “find the feeling” (chapter 4)

– when we, as Solution-Focused practitioners, ask “what would be the smallest sign that…” we “shrink the change” (chapter 5)

– and since all the questions in the Solution-Focused therapy or coaching protocols are interactional, i.e. are aimed at focusing the client’s attention on the situation, we do help in “shaping the path“.

The more I practice Solution-Focus, the more I am impressed by how effective it is.

Yet, despite the empirical nature of the work that led to the creation of Solution-focused interviewing protocols and despite the research supporting it,  people have a hard time believing it can work. And that is because of ingrained assumptions about change. The authors did an excellent job in showing that there is a different way to think about change. And for that, I am very grateful to Chip and Dan Heath.

Priceless: the cost of change in a few quotes

A traditional approach to coaching and change (and “it’s common knowledge in the business world that change is very difficult. Managing change is hard work, creating change takes lots of effort, top management support is vital and yet elusive, and great care has to be taken to make sure it all doesn’t go horribly wrong” in the words of Mark McKergow)
vs.
a Brief Coaching, Solution-Focused approach to change (“it’s fast, effective, energizing, engaging, flexible, low cost…and somewhat counter-intuitive”, quoting Mark Mc Kergow again).

“Coaching relationships should be allowed to run their course regardless of how long this may take” – in Coaching That Counts, by Dianna Anderson and Merrill Anderson, p.252
vs.
“Successful coaching does not imperatively need to be arranged over a long period of time… In all three cases, only a single coaching session took place… As a Brief Coach, I see my contribution in enabling executives a usable start in the desired direction within a conversation… So coaching can be designed in a way to make further coaching superfluous“, Peter Szabó, Brief Coaching of Executives

“Finding 1: The Perceived Effectiveness of Coaching Increased with the Length of the Coaching Relationship. Those who were coached the longest (e.g., 18 or more hours) rated coaching the highest: 81% rated coaching as very effective, 17% as somewhat effective, and only 2% as not effective. On the other hand, those who were coached the shortest amount of time (e.g., up to 6 hours) rated coaching as less effective: 46% rated coaching as very effective, 40% as somewhat effective, and 14% rated coaching as not effective.” – in Coaching That Counts, by Dianna Anderson and Merrill Anderson, p.252
vs.
This resulted in the development of solution-focused brief counseling, a simple procedure which leads to
the rapid identification of sustainable and effective solutions. In concrete terms, this means that, by systematically refraining from counseling activities that are of little use, the time investment can be
reduced to an average of three meetings, each lasting 50 minutes.
This form of counseling has
proved to be sustainable and effective, with a success rate of 86%, as shown by studies carried out
after 6 and 18 months. – Peter Szabó, in Introduction to Solution-Focused Brief Coaching.

I am not questioning the skills of coaches who use “traditional” coaching models.

They are doing an excellent job.

However, it takes them longer to get to the results that clients want, simply because they are using coaching protocols that require steps that are not essential to help clients change.
It is as if they were running a race with a heavy backpack: the weight of unproven assumptions about change weighting heavily on their backs, held back by the sheer amount of time required to engage in “change” activities (analysis, problem definition, finding weaknesses…) that are not necessary to help clients.
Solution-Focused Brief Coaching, on the other hand, is the art of asking only the few questions that can help make a difference for clients, and nothing else.

It is coaching in its purest form: brief, simple and effective.

And given the times, wouldn’t you want to get the results you seek in a singe one-hour session rather than in multiple sessions adding up to 18+ hours?

In the end, a few stats of my own for 2008:
– average number of sessions per client: 3
– percentage of coachees who say they are “very satisfied” one month after the last session: over 80%
having effective coaching support at a fraction of the cost of traditional programs: in this economy, priceless!

Change We Can Believe In

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I learn a lot from my clients.
After a session, I review my notes; I think of the path taken and of the many paths not taken; I think about what I said, and I think about what the client said; and new insights, new perspectives emerge.
These reflections are very useful to improve my game.
Sometimes, they offer very interesting insights into how the mind works, how change happens, how people think.

A recent coaching session with a new client led me to musings about language and change.

After getting his authorization and changing a few details to protect my client’s privacy, here it goes:

“Philosophy [and coaching] is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language” – Wittgenstein, #109, Philosophical Investigations

1 – After the initial banter, I ask the client what he would like to work on. He states that “his problem is that he is not able to say no”.
According to protocol, I inquired about what he wants instead and what would be different then for him if he learns to say no to people.
As a reply, the client starts telling his own story: a self-made man, an entrepreneur and a local politician. He tells his story with pride. It seems clear that he has no problem being assertive or saying no. His narrative has epic tones.
So here is the first lesson I was reminded of: the “problem” is often a belief that has been formed by a process of generalization, deletion and distortion.
What fascinates me, again and again, is the richness of the world that is hidden behind such blanket statements offered by clients.

2 – I follow up with the proper questions, and the “problem” transforms itself into just a part of a complex puzzle of relationships, situations and interactions in the life of the coachee. It feels like seeing a black and white snapshot first becoming a color picture, then becoming a clip, then a movie, with the camera rolling from different spots, offering different views and perspectives. My friend Peter Szabo has a nice metaphor for this: it is like tapping somebody on the shoulder, and saying: I see it [the problem]. And look at what is there [pointing in another direction, then another, then another]! The client now starts to see that he can say no, and he can do that very forcefully, too! However, he feels he cannot say no to his own managers, otherwise they would “leave”. By finding exceptions, and following up on that, the frame expands (as my friend Robert Dilts would say): it is not a one-shot interaction! The managers’ requests are embedded in a web of interactions, where there are, as the client starts to see, many signs of loyalty on their part. The client gets to the idea that he can say no to some requests, explaining the why, and IN THE CONTEXT of a conversation where other positive things are highlighted. He can say yes and he can say no and he can say maybe and he can laugh and he can ask questions…
To get to that idea, the client has to battle the “problem-frame” that was kept alive by his own choice of words: “it is because I am afraid of loss”; “I have always been like that, even as a child”; “In my family…”. The past. The personality. The theories. All bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language. It is as if everything else disappears, all the good things, all the achievements, and the problem becomes a huge idol that dominates the landscape of the client’s perceptions. As if the client is hypnotized by this problem. I, the coach, can feel the pressure to solve the problem! Like a vortex that sucks your attention and your energies: “I can’t say no”. The mantra, the belief. Quick, quick, let’s solve it, let’s dig deeper, let’s be enchanted by complexity and emotions and history!

4 – This client tells me he has undergone psychoanalysis. I was impressed by how well he learned that language game. He elaborates on his difficulties about accepting “loss”. He talks about “mourning” and “transference”. He tries again and again to “bait me”: he mentions his family dynamics, his childhood, how his company is like his family and he is “spoiling” his employees.
I say that he tried to “bait me” because every time he mentioned something like that, he would stare at the ground. Then he would sneak a peek at me, to see my reactions. I responded following protocol: I complimented him on his level of introspection; I invited him to build on that by asking about behaviors, third party observations and actual conversations while keeping everything in the present.
I am sure that a practitioner of a different school would have followed up on that, on “the cause”. I am sure there was a world to be discovered (or created?) there. Had I followed a NLP strategy, I would have worked on the client’s belief, on how to change it: using sleight of mouth techniques (Dilts), probably.

I stayed true to a Solution-Focused approach.
And within a solution-focused conversation, the client comes up with a brilliant idea.
He now knows that he knows how to say no. He is now able to consider different scenarios because he is in a positive mood, seeing his abilities and being complimented all the time. He also sees that people do not leave him if he says no and that a request is part of a web of interactions and a specific context. Exploring exceptions, he now sees that he is able to “say no” effectively and convincingly when his “businessman” identity is triggered, when the conversation is focused on performance indicators and cost-effectiveness analyses and business strategies. So, here is his solution: create a procedure for authorizing new benefits, incentives, pay raises or changes in the allocation of projects. The procedure includes filling out a form; it includes a holding period; each request is to be audited by the CFO. Quite a change for someone used to rewarding his employees on the spot–i.e., quite a change from over-relying on instincts and bowing to requests based on fear rather than on business sense!

Still, a simple solution.
We did not need to “dig deep” and talk about the past, about the unconscious, about projections, about family dynamics, about the fear of loss and of death…
we did not need to find the “cause” in the psyche…
we did not develop the generalization “I can’t say no” into a theory of personality, a trait of the client or a fact he has to explain and deal with.
we stayed on the surface.
we de-constructed the generalization “I can’t say no”: What happens when you say no? What is different? What else? What do you say? What do others say? Where? When?…

“what we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” – Wittgenstein, #116, Philosophical Investigations.

McAdams Theory of Personality

You can learn about Professor McAdams here.
You can also download his papers here.

Among his papers, the one that most clearly state his Theory of Personality is: A new Big Five: Fundamental Principles for an Integrative Science of Personality.

Prof. Dan P. McAdams

I love his theory because it offers a good framework for thinking about personality and about change.
I love it because it is science. I love it because it talks about “integration”. It sure helped me integrate my knowledge and my experience about personality and change. I can see people have traits. I find the Big Five Questionnaire very useful in my work. At the same time I see people change. Being a coach means being a change agent, and my coachee demonstrate their ability to change, in impressive ways, day in and day out.

I encourage you to read the paper.
However, here it is in a nutshell.
Personality is conceived as:

  1. an individual’s unique variation on the general evolutionary design for human nature
    Mc Adams’ framework is based on evolutionary psychology. He makes it very clear that evolutionary psychology is not just another theory. In his words: “most of the grand theories are faith-based systems whose first principles are untested and untestable (Mendelsohn, 1993). In contrast, we contend that an integrative science of persons should be built around a first principle that enjoys the imprimatur of the biological sciences”.
  2. expressed as a developing patterns of dispositional traits
    After the attacks launched on the concept of traits in the 70s, “not only did the concept of the trait survive the attacks, it emerged stronger than ever before”. Personality trait scores do predict observed behavioral trends across situations and over time. They do predict important life outcomes. Traits show long-term stability. They have strong heritability quotients (about 50%). Links between certain traits and the functioning of the brain are emerging. The Big 5 itself has proven to be a useful and coherent framework for organizing traits, maintaining its validity across cultures.
  3. characteristic adaptations
    Plans, strategies, cognitive styles. Beliefs, values. Goals and motivational concerns. All these are characteristic adaptations. Characteristic because they are ways in which the character is expressed. Adaptations because they are unique to the individual, they are contextualized in time and space, they are triggered by specific roles and social demands.
    This is one level where change happens. This is the level where we operate as coaches, therapists and change agents.
  4. and self-defining life narratives
    These are the stories individuals construct to make meaning and identity in the modern world.
    Each one of us has a life story. The more it matches our traits and our characteristic adaptations, the more it is healthy. This is another level where change happens. Coaching can be seen as a joint venture between the coach and the coachee to edit, reframe and construct empowering self-narratives.
  5. complexly and differentially situated in culture and social context.
    Culture. It provides context for expressing traits and characteristic adaptations. Extraverts in Kyoto express their sociability differently from their equally extraverted middle class Americans in, say, Cleveland. Culture. It provides a menu for life narratives. No person is ever exposed to the same menu. Each person chooses from the menu.