Best Boss Take 5 | You Can’t Divide an Elephant in Half

The 11 Laws of Systems Thinking by Peter Senge have gotten a lot of attention. We’ve covered Law #1: Today’s Problems Come from Yesterday’s Solutions, #2: The Harder You Push, The Harder the System Pushes Back, and  #3: Behavior Grows Better Before It Grows Worse.

Law #4: You Can’t Divide an Elephant in Half

And why is that important? Because when you’re thinking about problems or challenges that you’re facing – the ones that seem to be coming up over and over again no matter what you try, the ones that are complicated, that have moving pieces – the odds are pretty good you’ve got a systems problem. And there is no quick fix. A systems problem really asks you to think about solving it differently than you would any other kind of problem where you come in, make the repair, and move out of it.

System problems are more complicated. So this metaphor of “you can’t divide an elephant in half” is really saying when you divide an elephant in half, you don’t get two small elephants, you get a big mess. And that’s true for systems problems as well when you’re thinking about how to address them. 

Dividing a systems problem up into separate components, separate problems to solve, little pieces to solve, isn’t necessarily going to get you the change or solution you’re searching for. So instead, you have to look at the problem comprehensively. There are three things I want you to think about not dividing an elephant in half. 

Take a Balcony View

Discipline your thinking to move away from just the different components of the problem to really appreciating the full system from a “balcony” – looking out at the entire problem.

So first, get into that framework. 

Use “If Then, Now What” to Map a System

Do what you can to map out the system. So what does that mean? It means taking a pencil and paper or an online tool and asking: If I make this change in the system – in the problem – then what? The idea is to start seeing all the domino effects from the changes that you will make, the things that you will do in that system issue. So start mapping it out. You will start to see that “balcony view” – how things are being mapped out and what it looks like with the system. That will help you understand where to come into that system to make the biggest change because you’ll be able to see all the different implications.

Use a Thought Partner

This is probably the most important because this kind of work is tricky to do on your own. It takes a bit of discipline. So I want to encourage you to work with a thought partner, somebody that can go back and forth with you, somebody that has the same expertise and insight, or maybe even more into the particular issue or problem. Someone that can help you understand and see how the elephant looks as opposed to the ear of the elephant, the trunk of the elephant, or the leg of the elephant. 

Remember, we’re looking to see what the whole problem looks like. So go to the balcony, map out your system using “if then, now what”, and work with a thought partner to understand the full elephant because if you try to divide an elephant in half, you just get a big mess. 

About Danny

With over 20 years experience in training and leadership development  — and holding an MBA and an MA in Organizational Development — Danny Ceballos has worked with organizations across the country to strengthen their effectiveness in leading and managing others through supervision+motivation best practices and strategies.