Change & Complexity: Two Elephant Analogies

Changing behaviour >> Elephant Analogy 1: The Rider, the elephant, and the path

There’s nothing like a good analogy to explain things clearly. I found this analogy for change management in Dylan Wiliam’s book ” Leadership for Teacher Learning”. He summarises an analogy which was based on Plato’s ‘Chariot Analogy‘, which formed the basis Haidt’s (2005) analogy of the rider and the elephant, and was then added to by Heath and Heath (2010) in the book ‘Switch’. Wiliam summarises the analogy as follows:

  • P188: “Sitting on the back of the elephant’s neck, the rider holds the reins, and seems to be in charge, but of course this is only because most of the time, the elephant is happy to go along with what the rider wants. However, if the rider and the elephant disagree, there is not much a man can do to force an elephant into submission.
  • The rider is rational, focused on the longer term, and good at complex planning, but is easily distracted, gets bogged down in detail and tires easily.
  • In contrast, the elephant is instinctive, compassionate, protective and powerful, but is emotional, can be skittish and tends to focus on the short term.
  • To this analogy of the rider and the elephant, the Heath brothers add a third element, the path. The idea is that we imagine the rider and the elephant in a city landscape. For all its strength, the elephant is not powerful enough to walk through buildings, so the path directs and constrains both the rider and the elephant.
  • Heath and Heath (2010) suggest that effective habit change comes about when we direct the rider, motivate the elephant and shape the path.
  • For each of the three approaches to habit change, they propose three strategies, each of which they illustrate with a number of case studies. For those who do not wish or have time to read the book, I discuss each of the nine strategies in turn, illustrated with some of the examples given by Heath and Heath.” (Quoted from Leadership for Teacher Learning, by Dylan Wiliam, pp188 – 200)

I have further distilled Wiliam’s summary of the analogy in this diagram:
See Word version here. 

There is also a great video of the analogy:

Complexity and clarity >> Elephant analogy 2: The five blind people

This is also an old analogy or parable, found in found in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts.
Because I am tired and because I am blogging, rather than writing an academic text or an article, I am including a bit of text from Wikipedia:

“A group of blind people heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind person who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.”


For those who like a video:

What is the moral of the story for me? In complex organisations, clarity of purpose and vision is vital to create change. It is hard to achieve that clarity, but it is the only way to move the elephant forward.
And now I’m off to bed.