How do you eat an elephant?
I had a t-shirt many years ago. Not sure what became of it.
It said, “How do you get an elephant out of the fridge?” on the front, and “Just ask nicely” on the back.
The joke worked only in countries where ‘elephant’ was a familiar beer brand. Everywhere else it was confusing because… why is the elephant in the fridge in the first place? It just doesn’t work.
That also applies to the truism “How do you eat an elephant?”
It’s not on a t-shirt, but it might as well be.
It doesn’t work in all situations.
And yet we see it and hear it all the time. Those engaged in transformation programmes, long-drawn-out strategic pieces of work, we hear it a lot.
Those of us working on core replacement programmes, data migrations and system changes, we hear it a lot.
How do you eat an elephant?
It’s a phrase that carries with it the recognition that the work you are doing is complex. Big.
It won’t be finished fast or easily, and you just need to parcel it up in smaller chunks. Because nobody can swallow an elephant whole, but if you put in the time, you can eat your elephant one bite at a time.
So when doing a big and complex bit of work, the saying suggests, take it one step at a time. And it’s good advice.
The work we do can often look daunting.
Being prepared for a marathon with all its reversals is key.
The problem with the phrase is not its relevance. It works. That part is fine.
The only way to do a big thing is to work out the small things that make it up. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is that, when you are eating an elephant, you sort of know when you are done.
If there is no more elephant left to eat, you are done. And you can see your progress against, you know, not to be too gruesome here, but the amount of elephant still on your plate.
Not so with your transformation work.
Say you decide to replace a system.
You need to choose the new system, integrate it, test it, migrate data and users from the old system, test for edge-cases and exceptions. You realise that you had a lot of manual overrides and user-defined macros in the old system that somehow nobody knew about and now you need to find a way to get those things done in the new system. And work out why nobody knew about them. And then you discover a governance gap. Which leads you to a compliance gap. Which leads you to a new operating model as if your original undertaking wasn’t big enough.
And while you are in your meeting with compliance and risk and legal and the business to work out what to do with all the rules that people were managing in Excel for crying out loud, thinking this is a whole new elephant I have to eat… you meet Joel from the department next door.
And Joel is also tearing his hair out because while he was eating his elephant, rolling out a new enterprise-level identity management discipline, working across products and business lines, fully compliant as well, working within data retention and GDPR specifications and allowing the bank to give seamless experiences to clients without letting its own silos get in the way… while Joel was doing that and doing great and progressing with eating his elephant, someone said, “What about customers on witness protection?”
What about them?
Turns out the way we propose to manage identity in the new system, the new system that is about 70% implemented at this point and the elephant almost consumed, that way can’t manage users whose identity needs to be concealed.
“How many people are on witness protection?” wonders a distraught Joel as he faces into a brand-new elephant and realises he is nowhere near done.
Joel isn’t real. This actually happened to me. The struggle is what’s real. Exactly because the advice is right. The only way to do big things is to break them up into their constituent parts and do those methodically, in sequence, one by one.
The problem is that when you are doing big and complex work, you don’t actually know how big your elephant will turn out to be. And whether it is an elephant you are eating, a whale, a mammoth, a T-rex or an as-yet-undefined creature of monumental size.
And if you know you have to eat the elephant but don’t know how big the elephant is, knowing you have to do it one piece at a time isn’t hugely helpful. I mean. It is. But you don’t know when you are done if you don’t know how big the thing is. So how long do you keep going for? You will always find the next thing. You will always arrive at a dependency. You will always, always find that when you fix something the thing next to it looks broken by comparison or stands in the way of your thing really working. So your elephant keeps getting bigger.
How do you eat an elephant if you don’t know how big it is?
The answer, sadly, remains the same.
One bite at a time.
The question that becomes interesting however is why would you eat an elephant in the first place? They are not the most obvious snack. You don’t expect them to lurk in your fridge and, despite my t-shirt, asking nicely doesn’t sound nearly enough as plans go.
So why would you?
Why would you engage in transformation, migration, replacements, redesigns?
You may have ambition, vision and strategic gumption. That’s a good reason why.
You may have no choice because the regulator or the market – or both – are putting pressure on you. That’s also a good reason why.
It almost doesn’t matter which is your reason.
Whether you set out to eat your elephant because you have vision and want to transform your organisation and market, because you are burning with a desire to build something meaningful and different and therefore know that you need to take a lot of steps to get there…
Or whether you set out to fix a problem, to comply with a new regulation, to catch up with your market, to manage a risk (be it security, cost footprints or the fact that your technology is so old the engineers you keep getting out of retirement to fix it are dying, leaving you with no choice but to make change)…
Whichever your reason for eating the elephant, it makes no difference to how you go about doing it. It’s one step at a time. One bite at a time. Big programmes of work are always made up of smaller projects and milestones, tasks and activities all pointing in one direction. All making up your elephant.
Why you are doing this doesn’t change how you go about doing it. It doesn’t matter if it’s strategic choice or utter lack of choice. It matters that you know.
How you do complex work is the same no matter what you are trying to achieve. But why you do it is the only way for you to work out when you are done.
Why you are eating the elephant in the first place is the only way to work out how big the beast is and when you are done eating.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!