Management and elephants


For some reason, I see/hear elephants hidden in management literature I read and presentations I attend. Once you’ve noticed it, you start becoming aware of it.

This blog provides a elephant metaphor summary for you.

Cultural memory

Elephants can build up a memory over the years and hold on to it.

The lead elephant plays a key role and because she has time to build up a social knowledge, the others depend on her.

The female may remember good feeding places which can replaced by crops in time, and this is how human-elephant conflict emerges. In the end, the elephant always loses.

The text above describes exactly the same way as our brain works (see blog entry “Creasophy – the teachings of creativity“). During the years we have learned ourselves a special way of working. When success is accomplished our brain rewards us for it. After several years we have created our own neural highways to success. A similar metaphore used for this is the one of “Five monkeys, a banana and corporate culture“.

The metaphor is used to explain that change is not easy and it will take time.

Big and obvious problems that need to be discussed

Elephant in the room

Elephant in the room

If a problem is so big and obvious you cannot do anything else then discuss it with the group, people say there’s an elephant in the room.

This is rather self explanatory: if there’s something that big in the room, you are almost obliged to bring it up for discussion. There’s no need to find excuses. The problem is there, everyone is aware of it and it needs to be discussed. Now.

Taking on big problems

Eating an elephant is taking on a large problem. The act alone is almost impossible, so you need a separate approach. The solution for eating the elephant is slicing it into manageable pieces: slicing the elephant.

Just like when creating estimations for big projects (see blog entry “From guesstimate to estimate”), you can divide up the challenge and creating estimations for the smaller parts.

Making estimations for smaller parts is easier and you still have the wanted end result: an estimation for the whole picture.

Resistance to change

Change goes together with resistance. The metaphor of the rider and the elephant expresses how emotions can overrule rationality.

The rider is the rational side of man, the elephant expresses the emotional side of man. The rider wants to go somewhere, but he has to control his emotions. It looks like the rider is always in control, but because of the difference in size, the impact of the rider is small.

When the emotions run out of hand, the rider looses control and no rational reasoning will help calm the emotions. The emotions are like an elephant on the loose and the first thing to do is to get the emotions back under control.

The metaphor helps to understand and relate to people who are in resistance during change efforts. When their emotions take over, there is no need to provide rational arguments: they will not be able to take over control.

That’s about it for elephants.

Next time we’ll see where the horse fits in 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Management and elephants

  1. […] “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard” by Dan and Chip Heath is the metaphor of the elephant and the rider […]

  2. […] richtingen. Hoe overleef je drukke dagen? Het begint allemaal met prioriteiten te leggen en de grote olifant te verdelen in hapklare blokken. Door met de juiste dingen bezig te zijn, vermijd je rampen die je […]

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