Set fire to your elephant

21:28, Jul 18 2013

Can you recall being in a meeting where the biggest issue holding back the organisation, the elephant in the room, is being ignored? 

The conversation is about things that sound good and tick boxes, but everyone in the room knows that until the elephant is dealt with, nothing will make a real difference. 

Now imagine the same meeting with no elephant, but a fire in the next room. I guarantee the meeting dynamic would change.

The conversation would shift pretty quickly to dealing with the fire and action would take place. So what’s the difference? 

The fire is perceived as a life threatening issue and the elephant isn’t. 

Most organisations have one or two ‘elephants’. They may not be life threatening, but if ignored for too long they can become just as dangerous for your business. 


Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? The market has evolved and your old business model isn’t working as it used to. Your old point of difference has gone and consumers shop your category purely on price.

The consumer value proposition is no longer that valuable, but you keep it because you can’t find a new one.

Elephants must be dealt with, because if they’re not, your competitors will deal with them. Or somebody in a garage with a good idea, the internet and a penchant for taking innovation to market will. 

Dealing with a big elephant represents an incredible opportunity. 

Half the battle is admitting you have one. It’s impossible to deal with something before you are willing to talk about it and recognise it exists. As an organisation, grab the opportunity to face up to the situation and admit there is an issue that is big and may be very hard to deal with. Make dealing with the issue a big, hairy, audacious goal. 

The courageous people who stand up and point it out should be applauded, as this first step is one of the hardest. 

Once it’s out in the open, it’s easy to get perspective. How big is the problem and how much threat does it pose to your future? Watch who engages in this process.

It’s the people most passionate about your future who will take time to think about it. 

But don’t acknowledge the big issue if you don’t intend to do anything about it. The best way to make sure action comes from honest acceptance is to get scared.

Set your elephant on fire. Make it scary enough that you can’t ignore it. 

A great way to do this is by imagining a future based on not doing anything. Make it as clear and compelling as possible.

Invite one or more of your strategic partners to provide an external perspective and allow them to speak honestly and bluntly. Get to a point where emotionally and physically it’s impossible to ignore. 

Now that you’re taking action, use benchmarking and innovative thinking to search for possible ways to tackle it. Has any other organisation around the world taken on a similar issue and triumphed? Look at categories beyond yours for inspiration.

Then with insights and inspiration in hand, use imagination to generate alternatives. Push your thinking and allow others to help. 

There will be a solution. It may be something simple and obvious in hindsight, or it may mean a whole re-think of what you are and why you exist.

Regardless, you should see it as the start of something incredible; something compelling and exciting for those lucky enough to be part of the next chapter of the story.

Jason Clapperton is the director of strategy at creative agency Running with Scissors.