Don't Let Elephants in The Room Stop Progress

"It is hard to herd the cats when elephants are stamping about." — Overheard

A herd of elephants was crossing the road. We were in Madikwe, South Africa which is one of the largest, wild game preserves in Africa. The driver very wisely said we would wait a good respectful distance until they had crossed the road and were well on their way. There was a lot of elephants and they took their time, delaying us a good bit. None of us minded at all. It was amazing.

In work setting elephants stand in as a metaphor for a big difficult topic that everyone would rather avoid. A friend was recently trying to facilitate a meeting of top executives. Afterwards he told me "it is hard to herd the cats when the elephants are stamping about."

He is right. Lucky for us these elephants can be made smaller and actually transformed into helpful cat herders themselves. Here are three techniques that you may find useful.

Name the elephants. These topics lose a lot of their power by finding out their proper name. This can take some work because it must be their true name, the name that is feared. For example, some people are trapped in fear by some type of debt. This can be technical debt or financial debt.

Identify the damage the elephants can do. We must treat elephants with respect whether they are real or metaphorical. Real elephants can kill you. Metaphorical elephants can cause great damage to the business. Identify the likely types of damage the elephants can cause. For example, unaddressed debt will cause more damage with each passing year. What damage has it already caused,? What more damage will it cause?

I have seen this exercise cause the fear factors to greatly lower. I have also seen the fear factor increase as the reality of trouble becomes clear. Either way, the clarity is useful for the next step.

Have the elephants help herd the cats. Please do not do this with real elephants! However the elephants that are stopping the work progress must be addressed. Name them. Name the damage they can do. Own the facts and fears. Use the realities that are identified to help set the priorities of what must be done. The elephant once named and understood will help push the right things forward.

The elephants we saw in Madikwe ignored us and moved on. Elephants in the meeting room tend to show up every time until they are dealt with. Deal with them.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,
ALAN WILLETT