Reject the Expected Way

An adult elephant can be kept in place simply be putting a rope around his neck. As a young elephant, a rope is placed around its neck and attached to a stake it cannot escape from. After a few years, the elephant gives up and stays in place with a rope, a rope of tradition. Use your elephant to break tradition and once again get excellent results.

A few days ago, I met with a young leader, who I will call Tristan, that runs a division of a non-profit covering the entire state of Ohio. He’s focused on mentoring and developing middle schoolers and high schoolers into future leaders. In our meeting, he posed a challenge to a task he was given.

He would be participating in an upcoming conference and his boss wanted to know how he was going to connect with potential student leaders.

The tradition, for at least two decades, had been setting up a booth/table with sales collateral. It was an easy way to sell space to vendors that were targeting attendees. On average, event organizers would get 10-20 vendors. They would setup in one area of the conference so attendees could browse and interact with them between sessions. Although he was part of the conference, he was expected to have a table for his division as one of the vendors.

Tradition would state that he had to come up with a table design to attract students to his table. When he sat down with me at lunch, he told me he had a banner and a design for a tri-fold flyer.

I stopped him right there.

“What is your goal?” I asked him.

“To have an attractive table,” he immediately responded.

I paused.

“What is your goal with having a table?” I asked.

He thought about it.

“I need to connect with students who would be interested in being a part of us,” he replied.

“And what do you need to know they’re interested?”

“At least contact info,” he said. “Maybe a short conversation with a little more info.”

What I didn’t know was the impact of the schedule due to the fact that he was part of the conference team. As a result, he would be unable to be at the table at all times between sessions.

I recapped what I had heard so far.

“You have a vertical banner with a logo for an organization no student has heard of. You’re one of fifteen tables in an area competing for student’s attention. The plan is to have students take a brochure. And,” I stopped before continuing, “you won’t be at the table very much.”

His face told me he got it. The plan was a recipe for failure. What student would want to come over? Why would they take a paper flyer with them? Who could talk to them about questions?

A new wave of stress took over his countenance. He felt completely overwhelmed. In his case, tradition was intentionally or unintentionally pushing him to this solution. It was a solution he knew wouldn’t get the results he was expecting, but he had no money and was desperately short on time.

“I see this happen all the time,” I calmly responded. “It seems easier to comply with traditions because of the path’s clarity.”

“But it’s not gonna work,” he shut back, clearly frustrated.

I pointed to an empty corner near the exit at the restaurant.

“If that empty spot was your area, what would you put there to get students attention? I want at least three ideas.” I instructed.

“A banner,” was his first answer.

“Go one.”

“A table.”

“Neither of those are new. Think crazy!” I demanded.

“I don’t know!”

I waited for several seconds as his brain churned.

“Who do you want over there?” I asked an easier question.

“Potential student leaders.” He quickly answered.

“What gets them over there?”

“A banner,” he repeated.

It’s easy for many of us to picture this young, inexperienced leader. His responses seem silly. His creativity seems non-existent. He is poor and has no time management skills.

The funny thing is, I could easily repeat this exact conversation with almost every executive team I’ve had as a client. Sure, the stakes are higher but so is their experience. Just-keep-doing-what-we’ve-done-but-new is the answer. It’s a tweak of last year’s budget or a variation on last year’s marketing plan. With today’s attrition rate, new leader’s are trying to keep their bosses happy and minimize the amount they challenge the status quo. It’s a lot less stressful and allows more focus on other areas…until the results come in.

Very few organizations do a deep reflection. Inevitably, the poor performance gets blamed on some random thing leader can sell up the chain and everyone moves forward in the cycle, ready to repeat it again in the future.

I wanted this young leader to be different. The opportunity was here so I asked him again.

“What would you put here to get potential student leader’s attention?”

“An elephant!” He nearly shouted, his face telling me he expected me to laugh.

“What else?” I continued without batting an eye.

“A giant video screen.”

Several seconds went by as he waited for my response.

“Ok, what about the elephant?” I probed.

He just started laughing.


“What about the elephant?” I repeated.

“We can’t do an ele…”

“Let me share you a story,” I interrupted.

I went on to tell him about what Pacific Power & Light head done decades ago to fix there power lines after an ice storm. Management had convened a meeting to come up with a solution. Line workers were frustrated that they had to climb up icy, giant power line towers and shake the lines by hand. No one was allowed to leave until a countermeasure was determined. inspired by a watercolor break, one line worker chimed in.

“Let’s get bears to shake the lines instead of us.”

The room was filled with laughter with the facilitator used it to move your conversation forward.

“How do we get the bears up the poles?” She asked.

“We put honey pots at the top,” another line worker shouted.

Laughter erupted again.

“How do we get the honeypots up there?” The facilitator asked quite loudly over the chuckles?

“How about with those fancy corporate helicopters the executive use?” One employee quipped.

Laughter again. Little side conversations began.

“I was a nurse’s aid on a chopper during the war,” one employee said as the room quieted.

“They created a lot of downdraft. Why don’t we just fly them over the lines?”

I directed conversation back to Tristan.

“It seems silly then, but now that’s what power company is all over do to get ice off of their power lines and it all started with a bear. In my book, Lean Design In Healthcare, I talk about the ‘Evolution of the Crazy.’ It starts with what seems like a dumb idea and then morphs into something amazing. You need potential student leaders. So what are we going to do with your elephant?” I challenged him.

The conversation went all over the place, diverging into possibilities. We discussed a Greatest Showman theme, a person spinning a Free Puppies sign, and more. Several minutes elapsed until it became convergent again. We began discussing related tactics.

“Ultimately, I just need contact info for possible student leaders so I can follow up later. I need a way to collect that and a way to answer common questions.” Tristan stated.

“Go on.”

“As one of the event organizers, I can do a brief explanation from the stage. I can share a hyperlink on the big screens so students can use their phones immediately to sign up.

“For the booth, “l can borrow a screen and a projector. I’ll make a follow up video with me on the left and FAQs and contact links on the right. I’ll notify all attendees what times I will be at the booth for those who want a deeper conversation.”

“No table?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“And no flyers!” He added as he laughed. “I’m happy with this plan. We’ll see how it works and learn for next year.”

Many times, traditions need to be broken because they are no longer achieving the expected results. It doesn’t take blockchain, artificial intelligence, a gimmick, or a creativity expert. Start with questions. What are you trying to achieve? After that, you can figure out what your bear is…or elephant is…and ditch the rope holding you back.

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