One day in a small town long ago, six blind men heard that a strange animal called an elephant had arrived in town. Since none of them knew what an elephant was, they decided to learn more about it. They approached the elephant and began touching it. The first person explored the trunk and described the animal as a thick snake. The second found the ear and said it seemed like a fan. Another gripped its leg and explained the elephant was like a tree trunk. The blind man who felt the elephant’s side described it as a wall while the one touching its tail stated it was like a rope. The last person held onto its tusk and described it as a spear.
This parable of the “The Blind Men and the Elephant” has been passed along throughout history with lessons of people’s subjective, limited truth. Originating in the Indian subcontinent, it was passed among many religions including Buddhism, Hindu, Jain, and Sufi before coming popular in the 19th century as a popular poem by John Godfrey Saxe. Depending on the version you’ve read, the conclusion was one of the following:
- The six blind men believe the others are being dishonest and their conflict eventually becomes violent.
- A sighted man approaches the six men and describes the whole elephant from each of their perspectives.
- The six men eventually stop arguing, start listening to each other, and collaborate to “see” the full elephant.
As we begin a new year and as many companies roll out their new strategies and visions, we’d like to offer a different take on this timeless story.
Three Teams and a Strategy
In a large corporation just after the New Years’ holiday, three teams — Sales, Technology, and Design — received an email that the new company strategy was going to be presented in an all-hands meeting. Since no one knew anything about the strategy, they decided to attend and learn more about it. Upon their arrival, the teams were met with smiling staff and received a water bottle brightly branded with the new company initiative, “Elephant.” As they took their seats, music began playing followed by PowerPoint slides flashing across the screen and executives speaking one after the other. By the end of the meeting, the three teams were all filled with drive and passion to achieve this future vision. They headed back to their respective office spaces and began their work identifying the right problems to solve.
As the days and weeks progressed, leadership noticed some striking differences between the three teams. Sales believed the strategy was to attain significant global market share and was very confident that new clients and renewals were the keys to success. Technology was convinced the strategy was a purely technological evolution and saw the future as one full of AI and highly personalized interactions. Design, on the other hand, was positive that the strategy was an organization-wide human-centered approach to deeply understand customers’ needs throughout their entire life journey. The executives, baffled as to why every team was so far off from the center of the presented strategy, decided to bring everyone together to figure out what’s going on.
Scenario #1: The three teams believe the other teams are misinformed and their conflict escalates.
The three teams entered the room prepared with their plans and justifications for executing on this new strategy. Their team leaders together explained that the goal of the meeting was to make sure everyone understood the strategy and to provide an explanation of the teams’ differences to the executives. Next, they presented the same PowerPoint deck shown in the all-hands meeting. Each team then had the opportunity to present their plans to the other groups.
Sales went first. “Elephant is clearly a corporate strategy focused squarely on the opportunities of the global market and solely based on the existing strong foundation of US-based sales. To execute on this vision, we need to capture new enterprise clients at home and abroad.”
Next to speak was the technology team. “We disagree. Elephant positively calls for a technological, data-driven evolution within our company and the broader industry. By utilizing AI and machine learning, we can build highly personalized features for our customers and provide deep analytics for our company.”
The last presentation came from the design team. “While we appreciate the efforts of the other teams, Elephant is nothing short of a mental shift of the entire organization to a more human-centered design model. By approaching everything the company does in this manner, we will be more empathetic to our customers and create solutions that exceed their needs.”
The teams finished presenting their plans and the open discussion began. Any person could ask a question or provide feedback as long as they kept to the goal of the meeting. The conversation started gracious enough with a few questions wrapped in compliments, but it soon became argumentative and confrontational as each team held on tight to their plans and settled in their corners.
- “Section 2 shows the impact that sales will have on the global market. The financial data in our sales projections proves this impact. How do you not see that? It’s the second section in the deck.”
- “The sales you’re referencing may prove that this strategy works, but it’s called Elephant for a reason. The strategy is all about transformation and our implementation of the newest technologies is the only way that will happen. It says it right there on slide 4 next to the word ‘elephant’.”
- “The world is changing. As the quote from IDEO clearly states in four critical sections of the strategy, it’s about being centered around the people we serve and understanding their needs as an organization. Everything that has been brought up so far may support this human-centered approach, but the strategy obviously starts and ends with this new mental model.”
The three leaders were visibly frustrated by their teams’ behaviors and unsuccessfully attempted to calm the discussion. That said, by the end of the meeting, they too had mostly agreed with their own teams and also ended up quietly fighting among themselves.
Teams, like individuals, generally view things through their particular lens based on their own perspectives, context, and biases. It’s not out of ego or disregard, but simply a result of human beings who have been organized into teams with similar functions and experiences. Like the blind men, each department takes a piece of the puzzle and identifies it as the truth, applying their time and energy to what they see as the real problem to be solved.
The overall strategy is obviously not being hidden from these teams, but their own context and their leadership’s direction drives them to a specific part of the elephant. Technology may see the strategy as a flexible rope (the elephant’s tail), Sales may view it as a tree with a strong foundation (the elephant’s leg), and Design may describe it as an umbrella that covers the entire organization (the elephant’s ear). While most teams probably wouldn’t go as far as calling the other groups dishonest and confronting them, they may double down on their own points of view as we saw in this first scenario.
Scenario #2: An executive approaches the three teams and describes the whole strategy from each of their perspectives.
Hearing about their challenges and conflicts, the president scheduled another meeting with all of the teams and their leaders. In a similar format to the previous meeting, this executive listened to each team’s plan and by the time they were all finished, she knew what the problem was. The president stood in front of the group and explained how each team was only focusing on one piece of the puzzle — the piece that related most to their team. After an initial defensive reaction, the majority of the participants took another read through the strategy, scanned the room, and accepted that the president was probably right.
Using a framework-based approach, the president outlined the rules of engagement to drive the strategy. She presented the intended outcome of the Elephant initiative, and defined the goals for each department. Each team leader understood that in order to achieve the goals and outcomes established in the outline, they would need to have bound SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely). The technology, sales, and design team managers immediately began small work sessions with their teams following their set agendas to meet these outcomes.
As the team meetings and work sessions developed, the three leaders felt certain that they were achieving the Elephant vision. They tracked and measured their SMART goals, and reported on their progress in the standard monthly executive management meetings. Months in, however, it became apparent that while the teams may have been delivering on their individual goals, they were not working in concert with each other. In the second quarter, the President noticed that the readout showed a significant valley between the approaches of Technology, Sales, and Design. While each team presented, she observed that they were delivering achievements that had been agreed-upon, but they did not take the fluctuations and insights from each other.
Sales presented the progress they had made on cementing new logos in the global market with enterprise companies who were focused on AI, machine learning, and human-centered design. They had prospected for organizations who were driving innovation in those spaces, so that they could align their market message with the perspectives of Technology and Design. However, the technology team had made a few pivots, including bringing in concepts of virtual and augmented reality, and needed to identify core customers willing to innovate and prototype rapidly. And the design team had developed a human empathy model to apply to the AI and machine learning concepts that required enterprises who had specific agile approaches and software platforms.
These teams were still not aligned. The leaders now felt that they had wasted months of work developing strategies and prototypes that were exciting, groundbreaking, innovative, and motivational. How would they go back and tell their teams that they needed to start over?
In this second scenario, we saw that leadership sometimes needs to or wants to swoop in and steer each team’s individual plans based on the context of the entire strategy. While part of leadership’s role is to educate and guide, they may not see the full elephant either. Their position certainly allows them more insights and exposure to see a larger portion of the elephant, but they also have their own view that may blind them to the complete problem to solve. Context, biases, and perspectives are just as prominent at the leadership level as they are in any other level of the organization, so a shift to a more collaborative mindset is just as important for them as it is for their teams.
To achieve this mindset, teams are often encouraged (or directed) by leadership to work together to achieve better results and build a stronger culture. This may start with discussions, but is soon followed by frameworks and processes in the hopes of bringing different functions together to achieve a common goal. Hence the term “cross-functional.” The challenge with these processes is that they’re based on the assumption that teams and functions are inherently separate, and therefore need the structure and rules of when and how to engage with each other as well as whom you should engage with. While this has noble intent, in practice it tends to reinforce the silos they’re trying to break down and strengthens the specific perspectives and biases of each department.
Scenario #3: The three teams eventually stop arguing, start listening to each other, and collaborate to “see” the full strategy.
The technology, sales, and design team leaders understood that conceptually their teams would need a common model to drive the vision and execution of the Elephant concept. The three leaders together researched the best approaches for change management, and was excited by the Kotter Change Model: Create Urgency, Form a Powerful Coalition, Create a Vision for Change, Communicate the Vision, Remove Obstacles, Create Short-Term Wins, Build on the Change, and Anchor the Changes in Corporate Culture.
As savvy leaders, they knew that the Kotter Change Model would have to be applied twice: once for themselves, and then again by them to the organization. They hired a consultant to help guide them and facilitate their process. The consultant attended the newly-formed Technology, Sales, and Design leadership collaboration sessions and supported the three leaders as they focused on how to best implement the eight-step model with their teams. He stressed the importance of accountability and authority, and the need for continuous interaction and integration between the leaders and the teams.
With a greater understanding of the others’ perspectives and the new model implemented, the teams jointly began identifying issues and making informed decisions on previously independent choices that may have had ancillary or downstream effects on each other. While meetings and work sessions were regularly scheduled, ad-hoc stand-up meetings were also conducted when quick decisions were needed or as roadblocks were identified. This allowed the technology, sales, and design teams to maintain rapid progress towards achieving the Elephant strategy with ongoing transparency for their leaders. Over time, the teams felt they had become one powerful coalition, celebrating their short-term wins, being accountable to each other, and maturing to a single highly-functioning organization.
In the third and final outcome, the three teams came to recognize the value of each others’ points of view and truly work together to identify the right problems to solve and successfully solve them. They learned that collaboration is not a framework or defined process, but a mindset. The question shouldn’t be how and when to engage with the other teams, it should be what can we accomplish together. As we saw in this last scenario, when the focus is on outcomes over processes and individuals over functions, collaboration becomes second nature and the resulting work has greater value for the customers we serve and the organizations we support.
Collaboration is hard. As this modern corporate tale demonstrates, we as human beings tend to gather in similar groups and claim our limited perspective as the truth. Without getting too philosophical, it’s this inherent limitation that leads us to minimize or dismiss the experiences and perspectives of other individuals and groups that may be equally true. Silos may allow for rapid departmental progress but the organization, like the elephant, evolved and matured as one organism with a shared vision and common values. The blind men and the three teams in this story only learned what the elephant actually was once they really began working together. Even when the executive leadership stepped in, the teams still proceeded from their own context despite being more aware of the other teams’ and the president’s perspectives.
True collaboration starts with a deeper understanding and respect for the different perspectives, experiences, and knowledge that every person brings to the table. This requires leadership to be deliberate in their approach, a guiding coalition to practice and demonstrate collaborative behaviors across the organization, and a cultural framework that intrinsically motivates every member of the organization to succeed. It’s only then that the leg is no longer a tree, the ear is no longer a fan, and the side is no longer a wall. It’s only then that the animal (and the strategy) truly becomes an elephant.
This article originally appeared on Medium.
Shannon J. Gregg is the President of Cloud Adoption Solutions, a woman-owned Salesforce partner. Learn your own score on Ability to Confidence and Influence through her free and fun mobile course: https://cloudadoption.solutions/trailheaddx/
Jason Spector is an experience design leader helping organizations ask the right questions to identify and solve the right problems for the people they serve. Follow me on LinkedIn, Twitter, or visit me at jasonspector.com.
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