Why the Elephant?
Updated: Oct 18, 2022
The Elephant connects to several aspects of our work and mission.
We facilitate transparent and honest meetings that create cultural change and real results. It is in meetings that culture gets built — when people come together to accomplish something none could do on their own. Our expert facilitation allows leaders to fully participate. Our coaching focuses leader attention on modeling the behaviors needed to create cultural change, tight alignment and powerful outcomes. To make the hard decisions together, leaders often need to name and address ‘the elephant(s) in the room.’
We help leaders see the whole, breaking silos inside companies, by promoting leadership team cohesion and by connecting value streams so that work flows. We help leaders get a better view of the whole system as they help their organizations improve. Thus we are inspired by the old parable about six blind people describing an elephant as six completely different animals because they were each experiencing just one small part. We miss the big picture when we sub-optimize and/or fail to see the whole.
We help organizations get more done by doing fewer things at once, and by breaking efforts down into manageable pieces of real value. We help them 'eat the elephant'--one bite at a time.
We help leadership teams lead through change. In the book Switch, authors Chip and Dan Heath present a three-part model for how to lead change: “motivate the elephant”, “direct the rider” and “shape the path”.
Modeling Behaviors that Create Powerful Cultural Change
From Wikipedia: In 1814, Ivan Krylov (1769—1844), poet and fabulist, wrote a fable entitled “The Inquisitive Man” which tells of a man who goes to a museum and notices all sorts of tiny things, but fails to notice an elephant. The phrase became proverbial. Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel Demons wrote, ‘Belinsky was just like Krylov’s Inquisitive Man, who didn’t notice the elephant in the museum….’
The term refers to a question, problem, solution, or controversial issue which is obvious to everyone who knows about the situation, but which is deliberately ignored because to do otherwise would cause great embarrassment, sadness, or arguments, or is simply taboo. The idiom can imply a value judgment that the issue ought to be discussed openly, or it can simply be an acknowledgment that the issue is there and not going to go away by itself.
Meeting culture is ultimately an expression of organization culture; meeting facilitation is a core part of what we do to help your leadership team shine.
The best decisions are made through transparency, courage, full participation, respectful listening, healthy conflict, real collaboration and focus. When leaders at all levels model and promote those behaviors, they begin to instantiate the very best of their culture. In this environment, meetings are a great way to get stuff done (and no longer a ‘drag’ or a ‘waste of time’).
We provide expert facilitation to help leadership teams turn their elephants into great opportunities to make the meeting and the organization better, all the while ensuring that the meeting — from weekly management sync to quarterly business steering to vision and strategy workshop — drives toward powerful outcomes.
Seeing the Whole
The parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant:
Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”
They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.
“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.
They began to argue about the elephant and every one of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said.”
“Oh!” everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.
For us, this parable represents the situation we often encounter at companies, wherein each department or each leader on the leadership team is unintentionally myopic, viewing strategy, work, and the company’s performance from a too-limited perspective. We help all the people more effectively share what they see, so they can collectively see the whole (an elephant).
Eating the Elephant
Desmond Tutu once said that 'there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.'
Companies certainly have a habit of trying to eat the elephant whole--and even a whole herd of elephants! Biting off more than we can chew is a pretty common habit.
To eat the elephants one bite at a time creates more organizational sanity, and actually improves the flow of value delivery. When the elephant in question is organizational change, we get even more benefit: Change that seems daunting, overwhelming, and even impossible can be accomplished gradually by taking on just a little at a time.
Excerpted from the book Switch:
The conventional wisdom in psychology, in fact, is that the brain has two independent systems at work at all times. First, there’s what we called the emotional side. It’s the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure. Second, there’s the rational side, also known as the reflective or conscious system. It’s the part of you that deliberates and analyzes and looks into the future.
Plato said that in our heads we have a rational charioteer who has to rein in an unruly horse that “barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined.”
But, to us, the duo’s tension is captured best by an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.
When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs. (We cut back on expenses today to yield a better balance sheet next year. We avoid ice cream today for a better body next year.) Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.
The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment (all those things that your pet can’t do).
But what may surprise you is that the Elephant also has enormous strengths and that the Rider has crippling weaknesses. The Elephant isn’t always the bad guy. Emotion is the Elephant’s turf—love and compassion and sympathy and loyalty. That fierce instinct you have to protect your kids against harm—that’s the Elephant. That spine-stiffening you feel when you need to stand up for yourself—that’s the Elephant.
And even more important if you’re contemplating a change, the Elephant is the one who gets things done. To make progress toward a goal, whether it’s noble or crass, requires the energy and drive of the Elephant. And this strength is the mirror image of the Rider’s great weakness: spinning his wheels. The Rider tends to overanalyze and overthink things. Chances are, you know people with Rider problems: your friend who can agonize for twenty minutes about what to eat for dinner; your colleague who can brainstorm about new ideas for hours but can’t ever seem to make a decision.
If you want to change things, you’ve got to appeal to both. The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy. So if you reach the Riders of your team but not the Elephants, team members will have understanding without motivation. If you reach their Elephants but not their Riders, they’ll have passion without direction. In both cases, the flaws can be paralyzing. A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure that nothing changes. But when Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily.
We help leaders continue to motivate the people in the organization, as well as appeal to their rational selves. We help people inspire each other, while also providing direction and the Heaths’ third element, “Shape the Path.” In this way, we help keep change efforts effective, holistic and human-centered.