Making the Whole Elephant Visible

This blog will take a look at a novel approach which companies are using to deal with complex issues – an energy company aspiring to improve internal communications, an organization dealing with an aging workforce and a pharmaceutical company targeting to create a learning environment within its marketing department.

All of these issues are multi-facetted. For instance, 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.

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Most attempts to deal with such issues revolve around the 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 represents 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 outside perspective. Most change projects – both good and bad – begin in this manner.


An “inside-out” approach is characterized by acknowledging that the experiences and input of individual stakeholders (ie. employee, customer, supplier, shareholder, etc.) offer an essential part of the solution. From their position within the system, these stakeholders know better than anyone else what is working and not working for them (and the company). Key components to be changed and/or improved can be determined if this information can be made visible. The process of making this kind of information visible is what Ensemble Enabler describes as “Strategy Mapping®”.

Let’s look at a concrete example of this approach.

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 systemic dialogue enabled them to identify the issues and create the following strategic map:

Strategy Mapping Blog Communication

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

This strategic map identifies BOTH the multiple facets of the communication difficulties facing this company AND highlights the issues which are the executives’ priorities. The map provides a complete overview of the complexity of dealing with these issues while also pinpointing critical items. No individual would be able to identify all of these items individually. However, the intelligence of the stakeholders provided the means to map the prevailing state of the company’s climate.

The dividend of this approach is the creation of an awareness of the whole. The 150 executives recognized all the issues vis-à-vis fostering effective communication in the company. They knew that their fellow colleagues were also aware of these issues. The systemic dialogue created a collective consciousness of what needed to be done. All the executives could tackle solving these issues from a shared understanding. This created VALUE THROUGH ALIGNMENT for the company.

Another example of Strategy Mapping® addressed the challenge and opportunities of an aging workforce. The retirement age in Italy has been raised to 70 years of age. In this case 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 many companies. Most of participants were over 50 years of age, while a representative number of workers aged under 50 years of age (ca. 15%) participated, as well as a few employees who had recently retired. Together all these participants provided unique perspectives to consider the myriad of issues and opportunities of an aging workforce. The results of this strategic dialogue are visualized in the following mind map:

Bologna Recommendations Mind Map

During this three hour systemic 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, Strategy Mapping® captures the real world of each stakeholder and synthesizes these 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, the pitfall with such an analytic approach in a business context is that the wrong issue may be the center of focus or understanding this one issue will not promote an understanding of the whole. Understanding the properties of hydrogen and oxygen in the scientific context does not necessarily help to understand all of water’s properties.

Strategy mapping is a complement to traditional analytical approaches, not a replacement. Combining the two is a powerful winning formula. By intially understanding the context from a stakeholder perspective, this imput directs a focussed analysis of key issues. Together Strategy Mapping® and analysis provides increased value-added for a company’s efforts by looking at the issues in the context of the company’s “big picture”.

One last food-for-thought…….

One pharmaceutical company was working to improve their inter-departmental collaboration. All key members of the department created a strategic map and selected their top 10 priority items. The company utilized the collective intelligence of the group to view each of the priorities under a magnifying glass and scrutinize each item in depth. By fostering inter-department collaboration in this manner, the way the departments work together has been transformed.

elephant 7f475657

Lastly, for those wondering about the concept of “making the eleplant visible (in the company)”, here’s John Godfrey Saxe’s (1816-1887) version of the famous Indian legend:


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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