elephant rider

Why is change so hard? I asked myself this question during my first real business change program. I was assigned to build a new business process and as a rational person I looked at the current process together with a change team from the business. We eliminated all the ‘waste’ in the process and build a perfect new one. When we started to implement I thought this was easy. Forget the new process and just very simple tell everybody involved to follow the new process which we documented in a very nice and simple manner. One month later, less than 5% of the employees followed the new process…… How hard can it be to just follow the new process?

I started to search the internet about change management and bought the book SWITCH from the Heath brothers. This book was an eye-opener and a real inspiration for me to continue to learn about the rational and emotional part of people’s brain. Eight years later I still use it in my change programs.

It was actually Jonathan Haidt who introduced the Elephant and the Rider metaphor in his bestseller book; The happiness hypothesis. But Dan and Chip elaborate this metaphor into a great way to make change happen.

“The conventional wisdom in psychology, in fact, is that the brain has two independent systems at work at all times.  First, there’s what we call the emotional side.  It’s the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure.  Second, there’s the rational side, also known as the reflective or conscious system.  It’s the part of you that deliberates and analyzes and looks into the future.”

The Elephant (Doer)

This is the overpowering emotional element to decision making. It almost always wins, and almost always looks for the quick payoff. But it also provides the energy to get the job done.

Strengths: Energy, drive, determine, instinctive, compassion, sympathy, loyalty, get things done, love.

Weaknesses: Desire for instant gratification, lazy (can cause exhaustion), skittish, does not respond to the rider, impulsive.

The Rider (Planner)

This is the logical decision maker, who takes care of all the analysis and thinks about the long term. It usually plays second fiddle, no matter how much we want to believe we are logical beings.

Strengths: Analytical, Long-term planner, direction, strategy, problem solver

Weaknesses:  Overly analytical, indecisive, thinks he is leading and in control because he is holding the reins, slow to act.

The key to effective change is getting the Elephant and the Rider moving together.

“Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.  The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment (all those things that your pet can’t do.) … To make progress toward a goal, whether it’s noble or crass, requires the energy and drive of the Elephant.  And this strength is the mirror image of the Rider’s great weakness: spinning his wheels.  The Rider tends to overanalyze and over think things. … A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure nothing changes.  But when Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily.”

There are three steps to get the Elephant and the Rider moving together:

  1. Direct the Rider
  2. Motivate the Elephant
  3. Shape the Path
change management

1. Direct the rider

You can direct the rider by finding bright spots, scripting the critical moves and point to the destination.

Finding the bright spots

Change is different for all of us. Some people just embrace it faster than others or have a different mindset to change. A simple tool to direct the rider is finding bright spots. There are always employees, processes or systems that are already working towards the wanted changes. So, start looking for what’s already going well, no matter how small the sample size. What looks like something normal or an anomaly might just be the solution to the problem.

Script the critical moves

Focus is the keyword in this process. Change can be overwhelming, and people can already be exhausted just by thinking of what they all need to do and change. It’s about making decisions and about making the right decisions. Saying YES to something means NO to something else but that is just fine. Just ask yourself in every situation what your “make or break” is. In your business it might be superior research in development. In your personal life, it might be making it to the gym 4 times a week, so you’ll have the energy to work as hard as you do. Whatever it is, make sure that you script the critical moves in the process and do first thing first! Remember, however, that you can’t script everything. So, focus truly on what’s important and what will generate the results you need.

Point to the destination

One of the Rider’s greatest weaknesses is the over reliance on logic and analysis. “We need to grow our business next year in order to stay up with the competition, and here are some fancy charts that show us why.” The Rider loves this kind of stuff, because he can dive into the analysis and endlessly debate the veracity of your numbers and conclusions. In fact, the Rider will typically enjoy this much more than actually doing the things that are necessary to work towards the goal. The cure for this is to point to a compelling destination – to send a destination postcard.

 “destination postcards do double duty: they show the Rider where you’re headed, and they show the Elephant why the journey is worthwhile”.

Make sure you send a destination postcard that sends a message about where you are going, and make sure the destination is an attractive one.

2. Motivate the Elephant

You can motivate the Elephant by finding the feeling, shrink the change and grow your people

Find the feeling

Motivation is the drive of everything, by bringing feelings into the equation, results will change dramatically. Change brings a lot of feelings and I think it is important to understand what these feelings are. I used the famous Kubler-rose change curve to understand where people are in their own change process and adapted the communication and support based on where they are in this change curve. This will also allow you to focus on and deal with the emotional response of those who are affected by the change.

change management

It’s very important to keep the Elephant motivated when you found the feeling. A very good example to do is to celebrate small wins and reward the employee. The Elephant is lazy and can become exhausted if we don’t reward him regularly.

Shirk the change

The hardest part to change is taking the first step. For most people the change is big and overwhelming and can easy turn into chaos. As it turns out, people find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than to be at the starting gate of a shorter one. When you need to motivate somebody towards a goal, make them feel that they are closer to the finish line than they previously might have thought.

Below you can find a fascinating example from a car wash company:

A car wash ran a promotion with loyalty cards. Get your car washed, get a stamp. Come 8 times, get a free car wash. They did a little test with this promotion, however. Half the customers got an empty card with 8 spots to fill in. The other half got a card with 10 spots to fill in, but 2 stamps were already placed on the card. The same action was required (8 car washes), but one group was given a head start. The results were very enlightening. A few months into the promotion, 19 percent of the first group had earned the free wash, while 34% of the second group had earned the wash. On top of that, the second group had earned it faster.

Grow your people

I believe that the essence of life is to grow. All things grow and if you grow you will be motivated to move on and to change.  In every change situation people will ask themselves three questions: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would somebody like me do in this situation. In any situation, you can either give people a new identity to live into, or even just remind them of somebody they already know they are. Tap into their identity, and you tap into their action. It’s very important for people to have a growth mind set. See below a great example between a growth and fixed mindset defined by Carol Dweck in her book mindset:

change mindset

3. Shape the path

You can shape the path by tweaking the environment, build habits and rally the herd.

Tweak the environment

Although people will usually act consistently with who they believe they are, sometimes it’s the situation they are in that dictates the behaviour. Most of the time, we miss this subtle point. Stanford psychologist Lee Ross calls this “Fundamental Attribution Error” because our inclination is to attribute people’s behaviour with who they are rather than the situation they are in.  As a company in change it is vital to make sure the environment is clear and there are little to none obstacles during the process. You’ll be amazed what happens when you remove even the smallest amount of friction in the process.

When situations changes….behaviour changes.

When you are faced with a situation where people seem to just “be” a certain way, ask yourself how you could make the behaviour you are looking for a little bit easier to do.

Build habits

We all have habits. These habits become behavioural autopilot that happen without the Rider taking control. Unfortunately, we are not very good at understanding how to build and sustain these habits over time. Remember when you were in college and had an entire semester to turn in an assignment but found yourself slaving away all night the day before it was due?

When you find yourself wanting to generate behaviour out of yourself or another person, give them an action trigger. Make it very specific. Also note that studies have shown that the harder the goal, the more effective these triggers become. What you’ll be doing is creating instant habits, and that’s a powerful thing. But action triggers aren’t going to work if you aren’t motivated to do something. What you’ve essentially done is turn control of the situation over to the environment – it’s an automatic that next Saturday, after your workout, you’ll be working on your report. The Rider has nothing left to analyse and can’t interfere with your decision any longer.

A powerful tool is creating check lists. When implementing a CRM system, I used to get a lot of resistance based on the new (necessary) steps employees needed to in the new system. I used the example of a pilot. Before a plane can take off there are a lot of checks pilots needs to do to safely board the air. With this example in mind we built check lists to create the wanted habits.

Rally the herd

People are just like herd animals. We want to belong to the herd and we follow the herd.

Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t know how to act? Maybe it was your first time at a fancy restaurant and you didn’t know which fork to use with salad and which glass of water was yours. What did you do? You waited until somebody who knew what the hell they were doing to pick up their salad fork, and then you copied them. As it turns out, you do this type of thing a lot more than you realize. We are hard wired to look to others to find acceptable behaviour.

This is in line with finding the bright spots because in a challenging change situation there is always a herd mentality at play and employee will follow the ones that are showing the wanted behaviour. The key is to find a way to make the behaviour you are trying to create contagious by showing the people you want to motivate how to follow the herd.

Next time when you are facing a hard time changing or transforming your organisation, don’t forget that change is a battle field and hard for the employees. With the above tool kit and taking the employees as the centre of the change you have a better chance succeeding in your change program or transformation.