How to Lead Change When Change is Hard: Effective Policy Implementation

by Nonie Malone
in Policy Implementation
1 Dec 2011  |  0 Comments

Policy development and delivery is essentially preparing and implementing changes that will change people’s behavior.  Change is hard; policy work is hard (but rewarding if done well).  There is an overwhelmingly high failure rate in change programs and a similarly high failure rate in policy implementation.


Chip Heath, who with his brother Dan wrote Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, is touring Australia this week, enlightening audiences about the psychology of change.  He very convincingly shows why emotion, not knowledge, is the catalyst for change.  He postulates that, in making decisions, the rational part of us is easily overwhelmed by the emotional part, and that both can be harnessed to work together.  He uses the analogy of a rider (the relatively small and weak rational self) sitting atop an elephant (the overwhelmingly large and  strong emotional self).  The rider’s strength is quickly exhausted if the elephant wants to move in a direction contra to that intended by the rider.   The rider who fails to acknowledge the importance of the elephant, tends to “spin his wheels” by falling into analysis paralysis.


It is important to motivate the elephant to go in the desired direction so the rider can put the limited rational reserves available to working out how to get there.  Expanding on this analogy, the Heath brothers’ framework synthesizes the strong points of other top-selling management thinkers into three overarching concepts:  direct the rider; motivate the elephant; and shape the path.


The book clearly demonstrates: the fallacy of over-reliance on the rational; the overwhelming importance of appealing to feeling to direct the rational response away from analysis paralysis; and the steps required to take and keep people on the path to the desired destination.   


The book provides a framework of nine principles to support the three main concepts.  The many stories in the book make it easy to see how to apply each principle in your particular analysis.


It seems to me that we all know in policy that we must engage the people who ultimately have to make the change (usually the “front-line” in Australia or “street level bureaucrats” in US nomenclature).  The trouble is that many policy developers are not well-attuned to the psychology of change and rely on purely rational approaches that are mystifyingly ignored.


The framework developed by the Heath brothers gives a great deal of clarity and direction on the factors that truly motivate action.  The book is widely available in libraries and for purchase, and you can read more, including the first chapter at .


Of course, there are many other reasons for policy implementation failure, but the application of the principles in Switch should give policy analysts the tools to create the momentum to inspire the implementers to give their best to make the policy a reality.

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