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Online Edition — December 2003

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Matthew May
Troubled or Troublesome
Moving the Elephant
Elephant Problems and Hay Solutions


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Moving the Elephant
Elephant Problems and Hay Solutions

The Problem
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 the elephant.

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.

A Solution
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 People (, 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 ( and the wisdom council, and he co-founded the nonprofit Center for Wise Democratic Processes (

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