What is an “elephant in the room?” It’s a metaphorical idiom used to describe an obvious problem that people don’t want to address or talk about.

Talking about the elephant in the room can be tough. So much so that taking the path of least resistance is the easy answer. At least in the short term.

I’ve been a part of many dinners where the unspoken tension between relatives on different ends of the political spectrum was palpable. Who wants to open the floodgates by addressing the elephant in the room? I sure don’t. Listening to one-too-many-drinks-deep Uncle X spew a verbal stream of consciousness about how us “sheeple” are unaware of the latest government conspiracy theory isn’t high on my priority list.

Elephants are risk and opportunity

We live and work in the world as it is, not as we wish it would be. Often this requires taking the time to discuss the elephants in the room.

Talking about elephants represents more than summoning the courage to have hard conversations. Elephants in the room represent both risk and opportunity.

At Ondema, we are candid about the reality of risks. We’re determined to leverage the opportunities we discover to drive change for ourselves, our customers, and the way software and business intertwine. In order to affect meaningful change in ways big and small, we must capitalize on opportunities to increase our effectiveness. This requires creating an organizational culture that isn’t afraid to address elephants in the room.

The foundation of hard conversations

The foundation of hard conversations is respect. We are accountable to each other in ways both big and small. We strive to be on time to meetings, to be candid and courteous, to seek first to understand, then to be understood. If trust and respect have been adequately cultivated in interpersonal relationships and across the organization, hard conversations become much easier and more fruitful.

Talking about elephants, done correctly and with progress as the desired outcome, is foundational to building a culture of transparency, shared consciousness, and empowered execution. It’s also a critical piece of playing Calvinball effectively.

Talking about elephants in practice

Talking about elephants in the room takes conscious effort and practice. Below is an example of when we fell woefully short.

In the early stages of building the Workspace, all work created and tracked was manually saved. In other words, a user had to click a “Save” button after entering data. We had spent so much time dogfooding the Workspace that we had gotten used to the manual-save interface even though we knew it eventually needed to be replaced with autosave.

In this case, the elephant in the room manifested itself as an egregious assumption: customers will use the product the same way we use the product. By ignoring that elephant we presumed all users would have a similar experience to ours. Unfortunately, if they didn’t use the product in exactly the “right” way, their work wouldn’t save. Yikes.

Sure enough, an early beta tester spent a good amount of time entering data into his Workspace without manually saving it. All his data was lost, he had an understandably terrible user experience, and we looked like idiots. We ignored the elephant in the room and it sat on us.

There were important learning moments buried within that particular gaffe. Tactically, we prioritized a series of features to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. Operationally, we implemented an improved process for identifying and mitigating elephants. Strategically, we adopted “We Talk About Elephants” as a core value.

Now, with almost everything we do at Ondema we ask “what’s the elephant in the room?” Not surprisingly, asking that simple question helps identify things that might otherwise go un-addressed, all while consciously building a culture that isn’t afraid to talk about elephants.

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