Making an Elephant Out of a Mosquito

The world of change, no matter what industry or what type of change it is, is often exciting and fast-paced. Teams are pushed to their full potential and what is delivered can be above and beyond what you initially set out to change as long as there is dedication, passion, and drive.

As part of a change team, you have the opportunity to deliver a significant impact at your organisation. The methods in which you and your team decide to deliver a change or transformation, frame the key messages and target calls to action to specific audience groups will all be important factors in how well a change is received, adopted and maintained. There is a lot to consider along the way. Teams will need many discussions to finesse approaches and make sure that each step taken is carefully planned and considered from all angles. It can take up significant time and effort, in fact, it might not be that long before you are dreaming about those stakeholder maps and impact assessments, or how you are going to reach out to a certain leadership team member to ask them to endorse your project. Of course, in a dream, they always say yes.

As there is so much to consider in terms of actions for a change project, sometimes, change teams can fall into the trap of forgetting one of the most critical elements - the change team itself and how it functions.

Cooking up a Storm

If we don’t take the time upfront to understand how different members of a team interact, their individual characters, and ways of working, a change team can be at risk of clashing when there is a need for key decisions to be made, or disagreeing and prioritising the wrong outcomes of a project, leaving team members short of time, disgruntled and unmotivated as each day goes by.

Change is sensitive. It affects people in many different ways. The above situation is referring to a period in Tuckman’s stages of group development where a team is past the forming stage and into the ‘storming’ phase. Aptly named as to capture conflicts and disagreements. It is also the stage where the team is learning to trust each other. The hope is that after disagreements are resolved, they then move into the ‘norming’ stage and work efficiently together towards a common purpose.

However, not all teams do come out of this stage, and it can become a risk to the change project if not resolved.

People react differently to the storming phase. Some may be the team members who are insistent on a certain path forward, others may be more introverted and considered in their disagreements. Think for a minute if you have ever been in a team where characters are not coming together. What happens? How are the discussions moved forward? Did it benefit the project? Were you comfortable with the ways of working? Did you think there was sufficient psychological safety?

Now that you are thinking about the situation, think about what this might mean for the project and its’ outcomes.

Elephants in the room

One of the highest risks to consider on a change project if the team is stuck in the storming phase is when prioritisation is misled and resources are wasted, and time is lost as a result.

The English phrase ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’ comes to mind and is used to refer to situations where small challenges or issues end up being blown out of proportion and suddenly everyone’s efforts are directed towards them. The Dutch have a much better way of phrasing this - ‘making elephants out of mosquitoes’.

Often, when a team is disagreeing, emotions can run high, and in order to either demonstrate progress or value, small details that could be deprioritised become the main topic of the conversation, and before you know it, the room is full of elephants.

In situations like this, it is important to take stock, pause and challenge the value of the elephant. Should it be an elephant, or should it be a mosquito? More often than not, these types of conversations can lead to increased trust and help the team move towards the ‘norming’ stage. If left unchecked, your heard of elephants will continue to crash around with little or no progress made with the change itself. Before you know it, the resource has been used up and your objectives have not been met.

What to do next

Each team will be unique and need a tailored approach to be able to move out of the storming phase, and into then norming before the ideal state of performing. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t take small steps each day, especially if you recognise any of the dynamics described above to help improve a team’s functionality. Remembering that people are at the heart of any change is key, and that listening to each other and constructively challenging can go a long way. Read up on psychological safety and trust if you are a team leader, and work to understand your team members’ concerns and emotions. Most importantly, take the time and don’t rush. This is definitely one of the few situations where you want more mosquitoes in the room than elephants.



Written by Rachel Shaw


If you’d like to find out more about how Afiniti helps clients plan, execute and embed sustainable change solutions, and how we can help you with your change programmes, send us a message and we’ll get straight back to you, or give us a call on +44 (0)845 608 0104.



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