Don’t try to eat the white elephant whole – thoughts on managing change and leadership

At the recent “Change management and leadership” workshop run by Professional Marketing Forum we experimented with different tools and techniques to help lead and manage change. But one thing that the delegates focused on was “Don’t try to eat the white elephant whole”. Let me explain our thoughts on managing change and leadership.

What’s a white elephant?

A white elephant is “a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of”. That’s rather different to the pink elephants you are supposed to see when you’ve had too much alcohol.

In a professional service firm, sometimes the leaders get excited by an idea – for example, key account management (KAM) or client experience management (CEM) and ask someone in the marketing or business development team to lead the project. You are being asked, in effect, to eat the elephant whole.

Eating the elephant in bite-sized pieces

Whilst it sounds like a fabulous opportunity – this situation can be a bit of a poison chalice. This big nebulous project has landed on our desk and we have to try and tackle it. So we need to work hard and adopt a strategic and structured approach (breaking things down into management bite-sized pieces) to do things such as:

  1. Understand the reasons for the initiative and its link to other strategic projects at the firm
  2. Educate management as to what is likely to be involved – to check their commitment
  3. Craft a compelling vision of where we hope to be in the future
  4. Develop specific objectives for what we hope to achieve – this is important in managing expectations
  5. Analyse the potential costs and benefits of the initiative
  6. Define clear boundaries for the project to avoid extensive scoop creep
  7. Engage with champions and sponsors to help influence and persuade other stakeholders
  8. Break down the overall initiative into a number of clear stages and distinct projects – each with its own start and end dates, the resources required and the outcomes to be achieved
  9. Engage others in developing a process to implement each stage of the initiative and embed new behaviours into the culture of the

We considered several other change management architectures or frameworks and the delegates selected the elements from each that they liked to craft a process that fitted their challenge and firms the best.

The delegates really enjoyed the storyboarding exercise where we started with the end goal – or the vision of the desired future state – and then built a series of images of what we might do to get there from the present position.

Is two better than one in leadership?

A while back I wrote about leadership in terms of maverick magpies and predictable pigeons

I have also written before about Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI)

In 2016, in the book “Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business” authors Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters argued that there were two types of leaders required to grow a business – Visionaries and Integrators. The Visionaries are the ones who are future focused and see the big picture whereas the integrators are those who tackle how to align the organisation’s operations today to achieve that longer term vision.  “Visionaries have ground breaking ideas. Integrators make those ideas a reality.”

So we debated the question – for great leadership (and change management is an integral part of the definition of leadership) can we really rely on just one person or must we seek a leadership team with an array of aptitudes, competencies and styles?

Using metaphors for cultural change

The idea of a business idea being a white elephant is a metaphor. And so is the idea that a great leadership team comprises both magpies and pigeons.

During another exercise we used metaphors to help people see our current position and our desired future position more easily. Particularly with regards to organisational culture. Some examples discussed included:

  • From wasps (lone, irritating creatures) to bees (productive, collaborative group)
  • From pandas (fluffy, slow and cute) to grizzly bears (strong, fearsome and challenging)
  • From jelly beans (small, varied flavours but similar) to Quality Street (strong brand of different chocolates each with different preferences in the market)
  • From spiders (highly skilled and patient lone creatures) to termites (strong team building something permanent)

Such transitional metaphors allow us to take people on the change journey conceptually – to understand where we are now and where we want to get to and thus what we must do now to start moving towards the goal.

We also talked about the idea of a “burning platform” – something that forces people to act (i.e. jump off the burning platform). Many professional service firms are relatively comfortable – there is no perceived immediate threat which leads to inertia and “if it’s not broke don’t fix it” mentality.

A crucial part of change management is creating a “burning platform” to motivate people to engage in the transition. At the heart of this challenge is motivation – whether we use fear (the stick), greed (the carrot) or something else.

And this led to a discussion of the model of riders (rational), elephants (emotional) and paths (small, specific steps) as described in the book “Switch; How to change when change is hard” More elephants, but the emotional challenge this time.