This powerful metaphor and real-life example is a disgusting guidepost on the truth of where to begin when dealing with changing any large, monolithic system like government.
I’m always fascinated by the origins of phrases and there are few more iconic than the saying “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” The metaphor is a story about how to get started, but that is only part of the story, so being a curious lad, I looked into the real story.
My friends, let’s get disgustingly literal: do you know how an elephant really gets eaten? Yes, it is one bite at a time—at first—but then it is many bites at a time. So what about that first, impossible bite?
Provided the elephant doesn’t have a serious external wound or the like, and it dies of natural causes, the hide of an elephant is too tough to pierce for many of the African plains most prolific hunters. Sure, there are many great predators and scavengers that want a nutrient-rich bite of the elephant, but someone must find the way to take the first bite to get the entire process going. And surprisingly, the first bite isn’t by the top predators, but by the jackal or hyena (medium-size African dogs).
And where do you think the hyena enters the elephant to take the first bite? That’s right, the nastiest way you can imagine. The first bite of the elephant often happens in the most disgusting and accessible part of the elephant—the ass.
But that nose-deaf courage to take the first bite is rewarded with a full belly, which is akin to life in the African prairies. While that stomach-turning mental imagery might be distressing you mightily right now (hopefully you aren’t eating), look past the literal story and you will see the truly valuable lesson on making massive changes to large, slow, bureaucratic systems.
The best way to take a first bite and begin to tackle the change required for any government-like system is to go right for the most disgusting and accessible part of the system. What is the thing that no one else wants to touch or tackle? Start there. What part of the system makes the greatest stink for the customers or the least pleasant interaction point? Start there. What is the part that allows you the easiest access to more opportunities for change? That is where you should start. The first bite creates momentum for the team, and the right first bite allows others access as well. Even if it smells to high heaven. Be nose-deaf.
Speaking of smelling, a decade ago, a city manager I worked for asked for a volunteer to “start” the city’s sustainability efforts. I raised my hand and we did. We found the city had been engaging in strong environmental efforts, but they were department-led, poorly tracked, and there were few coordinated efforts. Most importantly, the community felt it had no support to protect the environment. But as anyone familiar with the field knows, “sustainability” is an elephant. With a recycling rate that was less than one-third of the national average, the community sustainability team that came together decided to target waste/recycling as their first priority.
And so, when we took up the challenge, we started in the smelliest and most accessible place: waste. At the time, our community had limited access to cardboard, glass and plastics recycling. There were very few incentives to engage in conservation behaviors from our private waste haulers because of a local recycling monopoly, so we created the incentives and eliminated barriers. At the same time, we held a meeting that put the five largest private haulers (over 85% of the market) on notice that recycling was going to be a mandatory part of the future—and would soon be required for all of them. At first their tough exterior was resistant to change, not unlike an elephant hide. It makes sense, as this had been the status quo for a long time. They were shocked, and one of their reps stormed out of the room in protest. As the designated spokesperson, I bluffed hard and took a calculated risk. We didn’t have the votes to force a mandate, but when the economics changed, we knew the resistance would be picked clean away. We took the risk and we took the first bite.
One day later, one of the five biggest haulers decided to start single-stream recycling and expand their offerings to include glass, plastics #3-7 and residential cardboard. The rep for the hauler said they knew it was coming and they needed government to push the status quo to make it possible. Then another of the haulers came forward. And another. All of them were on board by the end of that same month, and within a year, the diversion rate for the community had more than doubled. Since then, it has double again.
The hyena, even though it takes the first bite, doesn’t eat the elephant alone. Once the process begins, other large scavengers and predators begin to help; everyone doing its part in the process, all the way down to the birds and insects cleaning the bones at the end. This is also akin to how we need to work collectively to tackle huge system changes. It requires not just one, but several key team members to provide momentum, and then many other players swarming on the problem to get any massive change completed. In essence, the person who takes the first, bold bite should not be required to carry the project through to completion. It is not their burden alone, and any momentous change should involve a series of players equipped to handle their part.
Taking the metaphor one last, excruciating step further, eating the elephant returns incredibly valuable nutrients to the organizational ecosystem, just like tackling a massive bureaucracy. The largest elephants are holding on to the most resources of our organizations and by biting these large elephants, we will release massive amounts of energy back into the organization. Think about your projects and where your organization spends its effort. Think about the largest systems that produce the least value and the amount of resources it can take to prop them up. If you can eat the elephant, there is a massive amount of capital returned to the organization.
I share the rest of the tale of "eating an elephant" in hopes that the metaphor will live on in a new way, renewed in its meaning for those of you who are bold change agents, or tackling huge changes. While I didn’t necessarily want to insert an image in your head that you won’t shake, hopefully the full story completes an age-old lesson for us all.
Cheers to your elephant. Let’s eat.