Do Change Initiatives in Companies really make the "Whole Elephant" visible?

Companies are utilizing novel approaches to deal with complex issues.

Such as an energy company aspiring to improve internal communications, an organization dealing with an aging workforce or a pharmaceutical company targeting to create a learning environment within its marketing department.

All of the above mentioned issues are multi-facetted. Communication within a company includes top-down and cross-functional communication, bottom-up and inter-departmental communication, performance reviews and feedback, etc. – not to mention the myriad of instruments available to support this communication.

Most attempts to deal with such issues revolve around tried and true methods of analysis. A team is given the task to improve a specific component of a larger business issue. An analysis is conducted, experts are brought in as needed, and recommendations for improvement are developed. This modus operandi characterizes an “outside-in” approach. The team doing the analysis acts as an outside observer, attempting to assess the options as objectively and neutrally as possible. Proposed solutions are introduced into the organization from this outsider perspective. Most change projects – both good and bad – are initiated in this manner.


An “inside-out” approach acknowledges that the experiences and input of individual stakeholders (ie. employee, customer, supplier, shareholders, etc.) form an essential part of any solution. From their unique position within the system, these stakeholders know better than anyone what is working and not working for them (and the company). Key components which need to be changed and/or improved can be identified if this information is made visible. Ensemble Enabler uses large scale dialogue and Visual Enabling to make this information visible.

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Let’s look at a concrete examples of this novel approach.

Example #1 Improving internal communications

The top 150 executives of an energy company met to discuss how to improve internal communications. The company was suffering from an overload of information coming from all directions, essentially obscuring the key information which needed to be communicated throughout the company. A three hour participatory large scale dialogue process enabled them to identify the key issues. The following strategic map emerges from this process: 

Strategy Mapping Blog Communication

This mind map of ideas represents a 10,000 meter panorama from the executives’ point-of-view. Working in small groups, they identified and suggested solutions for a broad spectrum of communication challenges. Their suggestions were assigned into three categories: Individual, Team and Organization. Each of the sub-categories - such as “e-mail” - documents the number of suggestions which were made.

This strategic map identifies the multiple facets of the communication difficulties facing this company as well as highlights the priorities of the executives' issues. The map provides a simple yet complete overview of the complexity to deal effectively with these issues and whole also highlighting critical items. No one person would be able to identify all of these items individually. However, the collective intelligence of the stakeholders provided the diverse input which was summarized in a map of the prevailing state of the company’s communication climate.

The value-added of this approach is the creation of an awareness of the whole. 

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The 150 executives recognized all the issues with regards to fostering effective communication within the company. They were also aware that their fellow colleagues also recognized these issues. The participatory large scale dialogue process created a collective consciousness among the participants of what needed to be done and the next steps to be undertaken.  As a result, all the executives could address solving these issues from a mutual shared understanding. This created alignment within the company.

Example #2 Developing viable approaches for an aging workforce

Another example of the use of large scale dialogue with the use of Visual Enabling addressed the challenge and opportunities of an aging workforce. The retirement age in Italy has been raised to 70 years.  90 stakeholders from a variety of organizations and companies located in Bologna came together to consider workable approaches to the current challenge and opportunities of an aging workforce in companies. Most of participants were over 50 years of age. Moreover a representative number of workers under 50 years of age (ca. 15%) together with a some recent retirees also participated. As a whole, all these participants offered unique perspectives to consider the broad spectrum of issues and opportunities confronting an aging workforce. The results of the large scale dialogue is visualized in the following mind map:

Bologna Recommendations Mind Map

During this three hour large scale dialogue, 90 participants conceived an comprehensive approach for a company to consider when dealing with the complex issues and opportunities of an aging workforce. As a result of their participation, the participants were highly motivated to play an active role to realize the proposed ideas. During an post-dialogue evaluation, the participants were asked about the level of their motivation to support making these proposals a reality: 20% indicated that they were extremely motivated, over 60% were very motivated and approximately 20% were motivated to actively work to realize these ideas. 

As an “inside-out” approach, large scale dialogue and Visual Enabling capture the real world of each stakeholder and synthesizes their individual realities into an objective whole. It helps to make the “entire elephant (in the company)” visible.

Analytical approaches traditionally isolate individual issues in order to study them in more depth. This echoes the scientific approach of the past 400 years: the more that an issue can be isolated (for instance an element in the periodic table such as hydrogen), the more can be learned about it. However, there is a pitfall with such an analytic approach in a business context. The wrong issue may be the center of focus or understanding and, as a result, will not promote an understanding of the whole. Understanding the properties of hydrogen and oxygen in a scientific context does not necessarily help to understand all of water’s properties.

Visual Enabling provides an insightful complement to traditional analytical approaches. It is not a replacement of traditional analysis. However, combining the power of the two approaches is a winning formula. By initially understanding the context from a stakeholder perspective, this input guides a focused analysis of key issues. The integration of both analysis and Visual Enabling provides increased value-added for a company by observing the issues in the context of the company’s “big picture”.

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Example #3 Improving inter-departmental collaboration

One pharmaceutical company was working to improve its inter-departmental collaboration. Through the large scale dialogue and Visual Enabling process, all key members of the department created a strategic map which served to identify their top 10 priority items. This strategic map reflected the collective intelligence of the group. It was used by the company to examine each of the priorities under a magnifying glass and scrutinize each item in depth. By fostering inter-department collaboration in this manner, not only were issues impeded collaboration identified, the manner in which the various departments work together has been transformed.

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One last food-for-thought……

For those wondering about the reference to “making the elephant visible", John Godfrey Saxe’s (1816-1887) version of the famous Indian legend offers another reason why Strategy Mapping® supports positive change in companies:


It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

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