Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant, and Shape the Path



“If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” — Mary Engelbreit

I’ve written about the Elephant and the Rider before.  This post puts it together into a simple way to remember a change framework.  Change isn’t easy, but a framework helps makes it easier and helps you build skill.

In the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Dan Heath and Chip Heath share how you can make change happen by directing the Rider, motivating the Elephant, and shaping the Path.

It’s possible to make sweeping changes with few resources and little structural authority.  You can make changes in yourself, your family, your charity, your organization, or your community at large.

I’m a fan of metaphors and I think “direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path” is simple, but powerful.

It’s easy to picture, easy to keep in mind, and helps remind you of the framework you can use for guiding and influencing change in all parts of your life and your world.

Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant, and Shape the Path

If you think about change holistically, you can make changes even without authority.

Dan and Chip write:

“To change behavior, you’ve got to direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path. 

If you can do all three at once, dramatic change can happen, even if you don’t have lots of power or resources behind you.”

The World Doesn’t Always Want What You Want

When you don’t want what the world wants, or when you don’t want the status quo, it’s an opportunity for change.

Dan and Chip write:

“We’ve deliberately left out lots of great thinking on change in the interests of creating a framework that’s simple enough to be practical. 

For another, there’s a good reason why change can be difficult: The world doesn’t always want what you want. 

You want to change how others are acting, but they get a vote.  You can cajole, influence, inspire, and motivate — but sometimes an employee would rather lose his job than move out of his comfortable routines. 

Sometimes the alcoholic will want another drink no matter what the consequences.”

You Don’t Have to Be the CEO

You don’t always have the structure, the authority, or the tools that come with authority.

Dan and Chip write:

“We created this framework to be useful for people who don’t have scads of authority or resources. 

Some people can get their way by fiat.  CEOs, for instance, can sell off divisions, hire people, fire people, change incentive systems, merge teams, and so on. 

Politicians can pass laws or impose punishments to change behavior. 

The rest of us don’t have these tools.”

If you need to make a change, figure out how to direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path.

Key Takaways

Here are my key takeaways:

  • Direct the Rider.  What looks like resistance is usually a lack of clarity.  If the Rider doesn’t know where to go, they spin the Elephant in circles.  To direct the rider, create a crystal clear vision of the outcome.  This includes when or how much, along with a specific set of actions and tactics to get there.
  • Motivate the Elephant. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.  Make your audience feel the need for change.  Analytical appeals don’t cut it.  Knowing is not enough.  Get beyond the knowing and make it possible for people to feel the impact.  Win the heart and the mind follows.
  • Shape the Path.  What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.  Make it easy to embrace the change.  Make instructions simple with step-by-step guidance.  Provide support groups.  Create training.  Pair people up with mentors.  Create peer pressure and social proof.  Behavior is contagious.

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  1. Hi J.D! What a great post and piece of work! Things finally started to stick together. Your change framework is a take away,by itself!When one
    has the desire and is purposeful results will not be late either ! How about if the elephant transformed himself into Rumi’s camel,with all her
    primary instincts ?.. can we motivate the Camel which is not lazy but still goes in the opposite direction without exhaustion ?

  2. P.S,..In this context I would like to quote the following story: An Arabic ruler was preparing himself to go to war .He called in his adviser:- “ I want you to take my wife and chain her into the tower.” –he ordered.
    -“But she loves you your Majesty!”-exclaimed the old man.
    – “I love her also, but we the Arabs have a old saying, that states :” Hold your dog hungry and it will follow you . Feed him and he will byte your hand.”
    So the ruler returned after 6 months. He called in the adviser and said that he wanted to see his wife. –“She left you’ – said the adviser. – Your Majesty cited a interesting saying before he left, but we the Arabs have another one, which You have probably forgotten: “If your dog is chained, it will follow any one, who frees him.”

  3. How ironic that I would find your post in my in-box this morning as I JUST finished reading Switch yesterday. I found the book and the whole concept fascinating! I couldn’t stop reading. It now makes so much sense to me as to why just giving people the facts about something will not necessarily motivate them to change. I really love the analogy with the rider, elephant and path as it is such a great way to visualize the rational and emotional minds and surrounding circumstances. I was easily able to explain the concept to my husband and my son in less than 5 minutes…complete with examples.

    I also enjoyed learning that anyone really can affect change by using this framework. I now feel I have some tools to empower me to lead a change movement.

    Thanks for such an inspiring blog. Have a fabulous Friday!

  4. I like this metaphor too. I like the idea that one doesn’t need power or authority to create change.

  5. @ Michael — Connecting the dots between the camel in the opposite direction and the dog who follows who frees him … it reminds me of the simple but powerful approach of swapping out “have to” with “choose to.”

    @ Stacey — I think it’s true power is its simplicity. I know some more complex frameworks, but I like the fact that this little framework is a story in itself.

    @ Vered — I think it’s a good reminder that people that have to rely on authority to lead, aren’t really leaders.

  6. Hi JD .. I like that phrase “the world doesn’t always want what you want” .. recently I’m seeing lots of small shops close up – because they’re in niche areas and in these times of austerity are not appealing .. they are whims of their owners, not properly researched as a business opportunity for these times in this area.

    The same can be said for us on the internet – we need to constantly take stock and explore our options … starting local with a physical product, which can then be expanded out onto the net, we’ve probably got our baby on the web anyway – just offering, tweaking and testing the market locally before making a huge mistake and completely knocking one’s own confidence to do anything – we’re not all resilient to complete and utter failure. We can’t all dust ourselves off and start again.

    Using this process we should be able to have relative success, from which we can grow in many ways .. Thanks – enjoyed your metaphor .. I love the picture .. one of these ‘walkways’ was found here preserved in mud going out to the Severn Estuary from Neolithic times (ages ago anyway!) Thanks – have a good weekend .. Hilary

  7. Hi J.D.

    I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Switch yet. Thank you for a powerful short story about clarity, motivation, and change. The title alone makes for a great visual reminder. I especially like the idea, ‘What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.’ Many would benefit from recognizing this gem as often we need to change behaviors, not people.

    Have a great weekend!

  8. @ Hilary — It’s a Darwin world. I’m seeing shops close up by me too. I’m also seeing new ones start up — and succeed. They’re responding to today’s gaps, values, and needs. I see them connecting to their tribes. An interesting new shop today had the slogan — “Sustainable is Attainable — if humans are re-trainable.” I liked it.

    My accounant is full of insight and he’s shown me time and again that smart business wins over hope and magic beans 😉

    Thank you, and you as well!

    @ Kim — Creating situations and glide-paths where people fall into the “pit of success” helps boostrap change. People hop on board when they know they can be successful.

  9. Hi JD ..- me too . I’d have gone into that shop to see what it sold and had on offer etc – what does it sell?! What a great name “sustainable is Attainable – if humans are re-trainable” .. sounds like training, coaching etc ..

    You’re lucky to have such an insightful accountant .. who guides you along. Magic beans .. trouble is numbers are magical … if you understand them! Happy day .. Hilary

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