The elephant and the rider

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We sift the evidence, weigh the pros and cons, and take decisions based on clear understanding of the facts.

Except we don’t.

In his book the Righteous Mind, psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt explains that our thought process works like a rider sitting on an elephant. The rider is the rational, thoughtful mind. The elephant is the instinctive, immediately-reactive subconscious.

When faced with a new situation, or a decision to make, in the blink of an eye the elephant decides whether to turn left or right. Then the rational rider looks for information that supports the elephant’s choice. And rejects anything that implies the elephant was wrong.

The rider can’t change the elephant’s direction. Once the elephant has turned, the path is set in stone for a while.

noelle-elephant-rider

This has huge implications for communication, change and how we influence one another.

If you want to set or shift someone’s mindset about something, you have to speak to the elephant first. Set up a situation that will provoke an emotional response in the direction you want.

If someone’s elephant has turned left, it won’t matter how cleverly you craft your memo to the rider explaining that they should have gone the other way. It’s already too late.

Thanks to Kristin Noelle from www.sacred-loom.com for letting me use her wonderful image.

Change how you look at change

In the 1950s TM Lewin described the following model for change.

lewin-change

To get from the cube of how it works now to the pyramid of how you want it to work you have to unfreeze the cube, move everything around and then refreeze in the new shape.

This is a good model. It matches our automatic sense of what we think change should feel like. It works really well for small-scale changes.

But the bigger the change is, the greater the differences between the cube and the pyramid, two big problems happen.

First, there is a perception problem. When you’re in the planning stages working out what you want the pyramid to look like, people see things differently according to their point of view. If you’re right underneath the pyramid it looks like a square. If you’re off to the side it looks like a triangle. So even though you’re all communicating hard about what you think the pyramid will look like, chances are you’re all seeing things slightly differently.

Second, for big changes, while you’re unfreezing, moving around and trying to refreeze, something will happen to shift the context. Someone important will leave. Someone else’s change project will intersect with yours in a way you didn’t predict. The external environment will change. All of this gets in the way and you can’t ever quite reach the pyramid you thought you were aiming for. Instead of a nice, clear, pre-defined pyramid of ice… you get slush.

This is often why large-scale change is so hard. Everyone has an intuitive sense that it should feel like moving from the cube we know well, to a clearly set-out pyramid that we’ve worked hard to define. But what we get is often not quite what we were expecting and/or really slushy and difficult to navigate.

So what’s the answer?

For some large-scale change, you can’t avoid a lot of planning. When you’re in that situation be ready for things to turn out differently than you expected and/or for it to be really slushy. Remind people about this. Be relaxed when it happens. No-one’s to blame. It’s inevitable. Just move smoothly into sorting out the issues as they arise.

If it’s possible though, avoid lots of pre-planning. Don’t spend ages polishing a perfect pyramid. Don’t over-design your expected outcome. Instead, set out some principles for what being in Pyramidland will feel like. Then work out a small change that will move you in the right direction. Implement it with the ice model. Then do it again. Little by little moving yourself forwards.

lewin-change2

 

Eventually you will hit a pyramid. It might not be the one you thought you’d get. But that’s OK. Better to go step by step to SOMEWHERE in Pyramidland, than plan one big jump to a particular pyramid… and miss.