Team Tool: Elephant Herding

They’d had more success than they expected.

So understandably, the team had lots of loose ends to sort that they referred to as the ‘elephants in the room’.

Here, red10 ‘s Will Sudworth shares a process helping teams to find and release Elephants back into the wild.

A: Expect Elephants

My coach, the late Bruce Farrow, used to say to me “If you don’t have tangles to fix, you’re probably not pushing forward enough”.

With this in mind, a good herding sessions starts with a discussion whereby you reframe Elephants as something that everyone expects as a normal part of a team working together.

B: Herding Kit

Elephants can be large and dangerous, so it makes sense to have the right kit for herding them.

A good kit comes in the form of agreeing a set of ‘ground rules that increase the psychological safety of everyone Elephant Herding.

Helpful ground rules include:

  • Everything that’s said stays in the room – we will explicitly agree what we will communicate
  • Be concise – this is quite a large team and we need to be respectful of airtime
  • Be open and honest – this is the opportunity to speak-up in a respectful way

C: Cluster Anonymous Sticky Notes

Ask everyone to write one or maximum two sticky notes, where each sticky note is an elephant in the room.

Agree that we don’t need to know who wrote the elephant, and that we don’t want to know. Ask leaders not to put names on the sticky notes.

Ask leaders to place their one or two sticky notes on the flipchart as soon as they have written them, clustering them with any other sticky notes they see that are the same or similar.

D: Prioritize the Elephants

There may be more elephants to herd than you have time for. As a rough guide, each elephant takes 15-45 mins to herd, depending on its complexity.

You can ask the leader to prioritize, or sometimes the leader likes to seek the team’s opinion using sticky dots or just pen dots. If using dots, then we use quarters as our general rule, i.e. if there are 12 elephants, then give 3 dots per person.

Explain that they can put all their dots on one elephant, or spread their dots.

Once the dots are all in place, ask the team to “say what they see”, then asking the leader to choose the order of elephants to herd.

E: Herding the Elephants in Two Steps

There’s just two simple steps to herding Elephants, that can be repeated for each elephant you have time to herd:

  • Step 1: Take off your leadership hats and have a good moan
  • Step 2: Put your leadership hats back on, and propose action & communication

Step 1: Take off your leadership hats and have a good moan

This can be introduced along these lines:

“We don’t normally allow ourselves to do this, yet when we are working with elephants it is a really good idea to complain and moan about them – it is cathartic (it is good medicine) to get rid of all our emotion about this elephant.

I’d like to invite you to take your leadership hats off, just for this step.

Not knowing who wrote the sticky note(s) for this elephant, who would like to start by stating why they think this elephant is on the list?”

And at various points encourage the team further by saying something like:

“Who else would like to have a good moan about this elephant?”

Step 2: Put your leadership hats back on, and propose action and communication

First of all ask something like:

“It may be that there are some constraints we need to know,
or some steers we need from our leader that relate to this elephant.

Are there any?”

Then you can encourage the use of power language to speed good decision-making:

“Let’s put our leadership hats back on now.

I’d love to hear some proposals, phrased ‘My proposal is…’

It’s rare for the first proposal to be the right answer. Yet it’s the most important one as we need the first proposal to get us started – anyone can then build upon it or create a counter proposal. And we can Fist-5 on a refined proposal to check alignment and whether there are ways we still need to fine-tune.

Who has a proposal to get us started?”

Once the team is aligned on the action to take, the last question is:

            “We agreed to keep this in confidence unless we explicitly agreed otherwise – do we keep this in confidence or is there anything you want to communicate?”

Enjoy Your Elephant Herding!

We hope this Team Tool is useful to you – let us know about any ways we can improve Elephant Herding having experienced it.

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