The Blind Men and the Elephant: Analogies for Change

photo of elephant

I was recently sitting in a VIVA project team meeting, strategizing about how to best move forward a client’s complex, multi-party system. As with any undertaking that has many players working on different moving parts, it runs the risk of becoming fragmented without a well-designed system that supports collaboration and information sharing.

To illustrate this, VIVA’s Managing Partner Nicole Tanner compared it to the story of the blind men and the elephant. In the tale, six blind men don’t know what an elephant is, so they touch one to try to understand it. One man touches just the tail, and thinks an elephant is like a rope. Another touches just the ear and thinks an elephant is like a fan. A third touches the elephant’s tusk, and thinks an elephant is like a spear. And so on.

Nicole’s story stuck with me for two reasons.

First, it was an apt analogy that drove home the system-building challenge we were trying to solve.

Like the blind men and the elephant, each partner can be doing strong work in their area of focus, but if their work isn’t feeding into the greater effort, the system won’t succeed. Each blind man was right–about the piece of the elephant he experienced. In the story, the blind men wouldn’t or couldn’t find a way to pool their experiences to truly understand what an elephant is. In VIVA’s work, it takes a willingness to collaborate, a thoughtful structure that leverages the knowledge and strengths of each partner, and strong coordination to ensure that individual partners’ knowledge and progress is feeding into the broader system.

Second, it reminded me that a simple analogy can effectively illustrate a complex or difficult-to-grasp concept. At VIVA, we often use infographics, images, and stories to clarify and talk about complex problems and solution. And an analogy–simple or silly as they may often be–is another powerful tool in a strategist or communicator’s arsenal.

The most intriguing example of this I’ve seen recently is ‘Consent: It’s as Simple as Tea.’ Sexual assault and its devastating consequences are a serious, sensitive issue. But, the meaning of consent is still all too frequently up for debate. By taking a risk and tackling a tough topic with an analogy that’s playful and even humorous, this video aims for an unorthodox approach that may resonate with certain audiences in a way that more traditional messaging hasn’t.

By illustrating a point in a way that can be universally understood, analogies help get people with different perspectives or opinions onto the same page–clearing the way for us to focus on the solutions, instead of debating over the problems.

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