Elephant Problems and Hay
Consider the familiar story of the three blind men
who encounter an elephant. One finds a leg and says
that the elephant is like a tree. Another approaches
from behind, touches the tail, and says that the
elephant is like a rope. The third comes to the front
of the elephant, and feeling its trunk, says the
elephant is like a snake.
Pretend for a moment that the elephant is
restless, causing problems for each of the men. The
tree-like legs are stepping all over the vegetables
in the garden, the rope-like tail is whipping people
in the face, and the snake-like trunk is destroying a
nearby bush. Not seeing the whole elephant, each
blind man then works hard to solve his particular
problem. One tries to turn the tree-legs into posts,
heaping dirt around them. Another attempts to shorten
the rope-tail. The third squirts poison at the
snake-trunk to kill it. The elephant, of course,
doesn’t benefit from these actions, and neither
do the men.
Most people and organizations approach problems in
this piecemeal fashion—as though they can be
broken into separate parts and managed using the
methods of control. We see health care costs as
distinct from the destruction of the environment, for
instance, and mechanistically try to manage each.
A breakthrough approach would have us work with
the whole elephant—seeing how seemingly
separate issues are related and seeking a simple
solution to them all. When we can see the elephant,
such solutions become possible. For example, we can
place some food nearby to motivate the elephant to
move to a more advantageous location. On its own,
then, the elephant will eliminate all the separate,
individually confounding issues, and even better,
we’ll start to benefit from a relationship with
To think this way can be difficult. Picture what
happens when someone comes along and excitedly
presents to the blind men the simple, risk-free
solution of placing hay nearby, claiming that it
solves all problems at once. He/she is met with
scorn. This solution seems ridiculous because it
doesn’t fit the existing paradigm.
By now, each blind man is an expert in his field
of study and earns a living teaching others how to
heap dirt mounds around the posts or to understand
different poisons for snakes. The new “place
hay nearby” idea is a threat to his stature and
livelihood. He is dismissive.
If pressed for what’s wrong with the hay idea,
the blind men mention pseudo-reasons such as the
difficulties of finding the right kind of hay, or how
the proposer did not properly appreciate all the hard
work done by them, or how this idea might not bring
full benefits in all cases. Each answer is presented
as though a fatal flaw has been found, so the blind
men can ignore it … until a crisis forces them
to be open-minded.
If you believe that creativity exists, then you can
accept that breakthroughs to impossible problems also
exist. In fact, simple, low cost, low risk “hay
solutions” can be found, which simultaneously
solve many impossible-to-solve problems at once.
I believe I’ve discovered one breakthrough
approach for solving society’s problems. It is
a method for all citizens to form an inclusive
“We the People,” to think together
creatively, and to determine win/win solutions to
problems. The book, Society’s Breakthrough!
Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the
presents a different way of thinking about problems
called “choice creating” as distinguished
from “decision making” or “problem
solving.” Choice creating is where we face
difficult issues and discover
“elephantal” breakthroughs. It’s a
hay solution that promises to make hay solutions more
acceptable in general. If choice creating were
facilitated throughout society, if society’s
conversation about problems could be deepened in this
way, it would be the solution for many problems.
In the upcoming series of articles I will describe
choice creating in more detail, plus review two
social inventions for facilitating it: “Dynamic
Facilitation,” how to facilitate choice
creating in small groups, and the “Wisdom
Council Process,” how to facilitate choice
creating in large systems of people.
Society’s Breakthrough suggests a
way to facilitate choice creating throughout society.
It suggests that we add an amendment to our
Constitution, one that doesn’t change anything
that currently exists. It just adds a new annual
ceremony that facilitates a new conversation among
all of us. It’s a way to seek out and be open
to other hay solutions, rather than judging them and
pushing them away.
JIM ROUGH is a consultant, seminar leader,
speaker, and author. He invented dynamic facilitation
the wisdom council, and he co-founded the nonprofit
Center for Wise Democratic Processes (www.WiseDemocracy.org).