Embrace the Elephant: Four Insights for Avoiding Misaligned Perspectives, Expectations, Incentives and Innovations

by Greg Van Kirk

Empathy is the foundation for designing and executing your social innovation.

Empathy is a verb, not a noun. You need to empathize with your constituents, team members, other stakeholders, funders, to name a few. (They also need to empathize with you.)

Whether you’re using a design thinking or a lean approach, the 360-degree empathy is what it takes to achieve success. This is easier said than done and requires practice, thoughtfulness, and intentionality.

In my experience, we so often fail when we don’t get this right. This leads to misunderstandings and misaligned perspectives, expectations and incentives, and missed opportunities. Let’s use a metaphor to provide some insights from our own tough lessons learned to offer a helping hand.

Try to “embrace the elephant” in these four ways and I guarantee it will serve you well.

1. Recognize the limitations of your perspective. Get the right people in the room and find out theirs.

More often than not we’re working with impoverished, marginalized and/or disadvantaged communities that are far different from our own. This means we don’t have the deep empathy required. How could we? And we’re trying to create systems change within systems that may be unfamiliar to us. In this scenario, our sense of the situation and what could and should be changed is limited.

The Elephant and the Blind Men” parable offers great insight.

It is a story of a group of blind men who approach an elephant and touch different parts to try to figure out what the heck this thing is.

One man feels the trunk and believes it’s a thick snake.

Another feels the tusk and thinks it’s a spear.

Another feels a leg and concludes this must be a tree trunk. And so on.

How many times have you been in a room with a group of leaders who are trying to understand and solve a challenge for a community or describe a systemic problem when their’s no representation from that community that is actually most affected in the room? Too many times in my case.

It doesn’t work. We’re like the blind men who can’t actually figure out the shape of the elephant.

The Insight:

Recognize that you’re likely one of these “men” and enter with humility. Your view (i.e your empathy) is inherently limited and you are inadvertently bringing some of the ideological “baggage” from your own learning and life experience.

Your perceptions might be dead wrong. That’s okay. Don’t fight it. Embrace it. Your perspective matters and it is valuable. However, if you truly want to understand the community and system you are working with (both of those are the elephant here), you need to get those most affected in the room and continue asking them what their perspectives are.

Get the right people together and ask, ask, ask.  This is what matters the most. In fact, they can often see the elephant very clearly. Ask and you’ll find that your community partners profoundly feel and smell and taste their community and the dynamics of the systems change you are tackling in ways you never can. The beauty is that if you do this well, the response to the challenge often reveals itself in wonderfully unexpected ways.

Related: Social Entrepreneurship: It Starts With Empathy


The beauty is that if you do this well, the response to the challenge often reveals itself in wonderfully unexpected ways.


2. Stop avoiding. Acknowledge, accept, and adapt.

Avoidance is part of human nature. We often know that something is “off,” that something detrimental to our work is likely to happen, or that our colleagues or constituents don’t want to do something because of some fear, uncertainty or doubt. And yet we plow ahead, not saying anything and simply hoping that everything will work out.

I see this all the time. People don’t want to adopt a new technological system because they fear they’ll be made redundant. Everyone knows this is hanging out there, but no one says anything.

Factory managers are asked to work to lower the stress of their “workers,” but they’re completely stressed out themselves. This isn’t brought up.

Women entrepreneurs are told they need to make a sales goal that’s impossible because they have thousands of other family obligations that are consuming their time.

Mum’s the word. And when mum’s the word, failure is likely to follow.

The Insight:

Proactively get these darn elephants out of the room. Level set with everyone you are working with first and always. It’s your job as a leader to bring up what everyone else is afraid to because they believe it will cause problems or conflict. The reality is the total opposite. Speaking up releases creativity.

By doing this you will accomplish three big steps:

First, by openly acknowledging the issue you will demonstrate that you respect the circumstances confronting the folks with whom you are working. This is powerful.

Second, you’ll create an environment where people feel they have the “permission” to have a voice and express their concerns. This is necessary.

And third, you can diagnose which of the “elephants” are true problems and which ones are design constraints. We fail when we don’t recognize this distinction. Accept what you can’t change and know what you can and adapt accordingly.

So be strong and speak up. Acknowledging the elephant is a lot nicer than having it step on you when you least expect it. And that’s especially painful when you knew it was likely to happen in the first place but didn’t do anything about it.

Related: Nine Numbers to Guide Your Decision Making


3. Appeal to emotions first. This is what drives motivation.

I can’t tell you how many times I have failed in my work because I thought logic would win the day.

Here’s what the numbers say.

Here’s my deep economic analysis.

If you simply do A, B and C everything will work out perfectly.

Can’t you see that!? Come on, let’s go!

The response…. is nada. I’ve fallen on my face so many times believing that analysis, purely rational decision making, and a rigorously intellectual step-by-step approach would influence change. But this is only a part of the puzzle. We are ruled by our emotions first. Our brains follow. One only has to look at the continuous confirmation bias that rules our political views as evidence.

The Insight:

“Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by the Heath brothers does a wonderful job of explaining the concept of the elephant, the rider and the path. The elephant is the emotional brain, the rider is the rational brain, and the path is the environment.

If you are only “incentivizing” the rational brain you’re in trouble because the elephant is much more powerful than the rider. If the elephant isn’t motivated to move or is motivated to move in a certain direction, the rider can hit it with a little stick as much as it wants to try to get it to change directions but not much is going to happen.

To avoid this, find out what people truly care about. What are their hopes and dreams? What are their daily pain points? What’s keeping them from achieving goals? Then get to work co-creating solutions. Understand and appeal to the heart and guide with the head. Spreadsheets and PowerPoints are nice and helpful but they’re not going to move people.

Understand and accept that we are not rational beings. Work with it, not against it. It’s when you truly connect to the heart that inspired change and the mindset shift become possible.


“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”


4. Stay true to your mission, not your innovation.

I was recently reading about research being done about animals using tools to accomplish tasks. Testing elephants, experimenters gave them a stick and placed food just out of reach. Other animals had used sticks successfully so elephants should be able to as well, right? It failed.

Elephants knew where the food was placed and could grab the stick, but would not use it to reach for the food. Later, the researchers realized that grabbing the stick with its trunk inhibited the elephant’s ability to smell and feel; senses that elephants rely on much more than vision. Go figure. So the researchers added a box to the experiment. The result? The elephants kicked the box until they were able to stand on it to reach the food.

You’re likely familiar with Abraham Maslow’s Law of Instruments otherwise known as the Law of the Hammer:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

 Don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole.

Unfortunately, as social entrepreneurs, we know this but we have a tendency to break this rule anyway. We fall in love with our social innovations (our sticks, hammers, and pegs) and try to apply them in situations where they just won’t work. We lose focus of our desired outcome because we become so identified with, enamored with and married to “our thing.” It is a super easy trap to fall into. I have done it so many times.

 The Insight:

Be proud of what you have created. Be passionate. Celebrate it. But, again, be humble. Recognize that your social innovation works well for a particular situation, with a particular kind of community and at a particular time, but there is no one size fits all or panacea social innovation.

Get away from the belief that you’ve created the best thing since sliced bread. You’ve created bread. Bread’s great. But always keep in mind that your original desired outcome was to offer a nutritional solution. You landed on bread but tastes may differ for different people. You may need to offer some other kind of “food” as you move along in your work to achieve your desired outcome. Or you may need to bring in someone else who offers a different kind of solution to help create the change your constituents are striving for.

If your stick isn’t working, try a box. If you need a screwdriver, put down your hammer. And be willing to lose some of the wonder in your bread.

In the end, it’s about outcomes and impact. Admitting limitations and adapting your approach or adopting a new to achieve this isn’t a failure. It’s progress.

Leave a Reply