September 28, 2017

Walking with the elephants

Today I want to share one of my favorite analogies.  I use this in almost every presentation as a way to challenge the prevailing paradigm that priveleges expert design and control.

There are two ways to lay out a park …

... one is to employ an expert landscape architect to design an ideal layout based on the expert analysis of the slope of the land, the type or soil, the position of the sun and the plants endemic to the region. What is created may
end up being aesthetically pleasing, with paths, grassy areas and flower beds in just the right places, but once visitors are allowed in they often end up creating shortcuts on the immaculate lawns, elephant or desire paths that frustrate the plans of the designer.

"Elephant path is a name for a path that is formed in a space by people making their own paths and shortcuts; it is an unofficial route. Elephant path is an anarchist way of moving in a city, a town or a village. It is an overlaying system of going from a place to a place in a space regardless of the city/town plan. Still, it is connected to the streets and the architectural forms." (


Elephant or Desire Path

Another approach is delay laying the formal paths, observe where people walk naturally and lay the formal paths along these emergent ones.  Other garden features such as benches, flower beds and fountains can then be designed to complement these emergent paths.  In this way, the people are co-designing the space they will be using.

This analogy helps to get the message across that expert-based design approaches and attempts to control behaviour often don't have the desired effect in complex systems.  For example, people tend to resist or merely pretend to comply with designed ideal cultures and behaviours that are imposed on the organisation top-down.  Instead, mapping the current disposition of the system and following the natural contours to create forward evolution in a more favorable direction is much more effective (and easier!).

Managers, leaders and change practitioners often resist this emergent approach as it requires them to let go of their perceived control - it soon becomes apparent though that this approach is much more sustainable in the long run.   I coach them to ...

  • find ways to map where the "elephants" are already walking i.e. established patterns that can be amplified or disrupted. This is usually achieved through narrative-based processes and/or tools like Sensemaker®
  • when leading change, focus on making small changes in the environment not on changing the  people or telling them how they should be.  To further the analogy, instead of telling people where to walk and putting up signs everywhere ... create small safe-to-fail experiments and monitor the impact e.g. change the position of a flower bed; create a boundary object that hinders movement or create something that attracts in a certain direction e.g. a water fountain or bench.
  • become more comfortable with imperfection and messiness - sometimes the emergent paths will not follow the aesthetically ideal or efficient route.
  • follow the natural contours of the organisation; meet the system where it is and evolve forwards from there.


2 comments on “Walking with the elephants”

  1. Awesome! Allow me to share a similar story. I live next to a small square with some shops. It had just snowed heavily, and everything was white and clear. No footsteps in the snow. People walked randomly through the snow. I went out and cleared a simple and narrow path from the front gate to the closest store, and some other convenient small paths. This worked wonders! Suddenly, everyone started walking those little paths. Oh, how easy it is to change people’s behaviour if you know how. Nudge the environment (game rules) a bit, enabling ‘perceived affordances’, et voilà!

    1. Great story Martien! It really is much easier to think about nudging behaviour through changes in the context than trying to change people (as Dave Snowden says it's much more ethical too!)

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