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  • Taming the Elephant in the Room

  • A mindfulness-based team practice for taming distractions

  • Facilitated by Joseph Anderson

    What keeps collaborative teams from performing at the highest possible level?

    It's the elephants in the room: they are big and impactful, and no-one knows what to do about them.

    Elephants can be wild: rampaging, destructive, sowing chaos and unhappiness.

    Elephants can be invisible: everyone on the team knows they are there, but nobody talks about them.

  • To name and tame elephants, teams need a structured and effective process that ensures:

    • Psychological safety so the truth can be spoken
    • Clarity so the truth can be heard
    • Direction so the truth can be acted on
  • “Taming the Elephant in the Room” is a facilitated group process based on the principle that non-judgmental awareness in the present moment (sometimes called “mindfulness”) dramatically increases the chances that a team can effectively discuss and address significant distractions. The end result? Insight into the true nature of the challenge (“naming the elephant”) leading to action that actually addresses the causes of the challenge (“taming the elephant”).

    1. Set intention to name and tame a specific team challenge (the elephant in the room)
    2. Take 2 minutes to stabilize attention in the present moment
    3. Build awareness together of what's happening in the present moment
    4. Think together to explore the nature of the elephant
    5. Identify the concerns that take each individual out of the present moment and lead to distraction and misalignment
    6. Let go to release distractions and do a mental reset
    7. Repeat four times
    8. Make a plan to tame the elephant
  • How it works

    Number of participants: 5-25 people who collaborate together

    Duration: Minimum of 90 minutes, up to a half or full day, depending on issues being worked on. The session may be preceded by a brief (20-30 minute) introduction to mindfulness practice.

    Team Readiness: The Elephant Process can operate at varying degrees of intensity depending on the specific distraction being addressed. Working with relatively minor distractions at first may be useful to introduce the process and demonstrate its benefits before proceeding to more significant issues.

    Who should participate: Anyone affected by the distracting circumstance is free to participate. The process is structured enough to be effective with groups with significant misalignment or conflict.

    What to focus on: 

    1. Baby Elephant – an everyday individual distraction with relatively low impact. This is a good way to learn and get comfortable with the process. Examples: “I have an upcoming dentist appointment” or “I’m hungry for lunch.”
    2. Junior Elephant – a persistent ongoing team issue with relatively low impact. Something that’s discussed from time to time but never really resolved. This is a good way to begin to become aware of team dynamics without too much at stake. Examples: Awkward Team Lunches, Thermostat Settings, Naming Conventions. (NOTE: Junior Elephants may turn out to be bigger than expected.)
    3. Jumbo Elephant – an ongoing team or organizational issue with significant impact. Among the top issues impacting the team and possibly the whole organization. This is a good way to derive maximum benefit from the process, but requires some team experience. Examples: Leadership Issues, Strategic Direction, Team Communication Challenges, Mistrust
    4. The Four Elephants Variation – one approach is to focus on each of the four classic distractions: Reactivity, Negativity, Tribalism, Change. The group identifies a typical distraction in each category and does one round for each. This is a good way to surface a range of issues and identify what further work might be needed to address them.
  • About the facilitator

    Joe Anderson, designer and facilitator of Taming the Elephant in the Room, is a consultant, coach and trainer who helps teams achieve effectiveness through human skills like mindfulness and emotional intelligence. For 25 years he has been on the front lines of technology delivery leading program, product, and dev teams. Through both painful and delightful experiences, he has seen that the single most important factor in effective delivery is human skills - and this is especially true on complex, cross-functional initiatives. When alignment and communication break down, lots of bad things can happen. But when teams have strong human skills, they break through adversity and achieve success.

    Read more about Joe here.