Skip to content

How to Make Change Stick

Written by
July 19th, 2019

This article was co-written with Bill Storm

Educators discussing change

There are few professions that experience change as often as education, and the beginning of the school year is often ripe with “new.” New staff and new leadership. New strategic goals or new areas of strength and improvement. As our student population shifts, new subgroups may be in need of additional supports or different programs. As we shift our focus to multi-tiered systems of support, we might have a renewed need to gather and interpret social emotional data, or recognize and understand trauma. The world our students are preparing for is constantly changing, and that means there’s a lot of change for us. 

Change always comes with challenges, and one of the greatest challenges leaders face is making it stick. So what is the difference between a change initiative that lasts, and one that fizzles out? In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath provide some insight into that question (summarized neatly in this two minute video). Switch breaks down the science of change management into three elements that should be addressed for change to be successful, represented by the three components of their central analogy: a Rider, an Elephant, and a Path. Here’s a synopsis of what Switch describes.

The Rider, the Elephant, and the Path

Heath & Heath (2010) explain that the analytical side of our brain (represented by the Rider) needs clarity, and clarity comes from concrete action steps that lead to specific goals. This side of our brain is rational and deliberate, and helps us with long-term planning. When next steps aren’t clear, our Rider may get stuck in a pattern of inaction as it instinctively looks for problems to solve or simply addresses the next big fire. To help our Riders plan ahead, provide crystal clear direction that will lead to the change you want to see.

The emotional side (represented by the Elephant) needs motivation. It is passionate, energetic, and determined. It provides the fuel that powers action and, ultimately, gets the job done. However, it is not an unlimited resource. What often looks like “laziness” is really just our emotional side’s attempt to save our energy for a worthy cause. Our Elephant struggles with navigating failure, purposeless initiatives, and tasks that aren’t connected to a larger, meaningful goal. It needs a ‘why’ that resonates and inspires, and needs to feel safe making mistakes.

Finally, our environment (represented by the Path) needs to be conducive to change. Our processes and workflows need to be efficient yet flexible. We need a positive climate that supports a growth mindset. We need access to the tools that are necessary for success. Change happens when the right actions are a little bit easier, and the wrong actions are a little bit harder. It’s that simple. 

Essentially, the Heath brothers (2010) explain that in order to lead change, we need to give direction to the Rider, motivation to the Elephant, and create a Path that successfully supports change.

Providing Clarity, Motivation, and a Successful Path

As we all navigate this time of year–characterized by new initiatives, professional development workshops, and goal setting–take a quick look at the change happening in your school or district. Is there direction for the Rider, motivation for the Elephant, and a Path conducive to change?


Just like we set measurable goals for our students, having measurable goals and concrete steps are important to our Rider. Here are a few strategies for introducing clarity at times of change:

  • If you’re rolling out a new data platform, try articulating one or two specific, job-embedded tasks you want your team to use the platform for (whether reviewing a certain report or monitoring a specific data set).
  • If you’re investing in a professional development workshop, specify the outcomes and learning targets for the session and how they connect to the participants’ work.
  • If you’re developing a strategic or action plan, outline the specific data points you’re tracking, and the timeframe for each goal.
  • If you’re implementing a change in processes or workflows, provide support documents, screenshots, and a communication protocol for asking clarifying questions.


For a straightforward, step-by-step approach to articulating a central value and key points that resonate with your audience, check out our recent webinar How Do You Share Your Data Story to Make an Impact? It provides guidance around shifting the focus from just tasks and goals to a central value that helps unite and motivate your team.

The Path:

Change needs an environment conducive to change. But what does that really look like? Here are a few initial questions to ask:

Illuminate supports districts nationwide with professional development, solutions, and resources around creating the right “path” they need to support every student. If you’d like some support as the new year gets started, reach out!


Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

[Rare]. (2015, Apr 2). The Elephant, The Rider and the Path – A Tale of Behavior Change [Video File]. Retrieved from

Related Posts:


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

Share This Story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *