Eliminating the Pink Elephant in the Room

How to Get the Buy-in from Your Leadership Team to Accept and Make Critical Changes

An abbreviated version of this article will appear in the September 2021 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

Have you ever faced a critical change in your company and couldn’t get buy-in from your leadership team to accept and make that change? You know what I am talking about. It is that pink elephant in the room. Everyone knows it’s there but no one wants to talk about it. The mindset is that if they don’t bring it up, eventually it will just go away. But, it doesn’t. There it is at every meeting. Come to think about it, that critter is getting a little bit bigger and heavier every time you see it.

Years back when I worked for a global training company, we had such a problem. At the time, in our region, our sales were flat and our market share was slipping. Clearly there was a problem. Our sales team and trainers were hearing things from our clients, like our programs were “vanilla”. Or we were “trying to provide old solutions to new problems”.

Part of the problem was the owner of our franchise was stuck on doing things the old way. As he would often tell us, “you gotta dance with the gal that you brought to the dance.” In his own mind, he knew what had worked in the past and was adamant against changing the formula. He wanted to simply continue to have us sell and deliver structured training programs. His instincts told him to go with the one size fits all approach and not change.

Our clients were telling us they wanted customized training that took the form of a one hour, half day, or full day training event. They wanted assessment instruments. They wanted one-on-one coaching, they wanted new formats that included teleseminars, webinars and outdoor training experiences.

The rest of the training and development world noticed, as more and more training and development companies were created. These companies knew the world had changed, and were quick to adapt their content and delivery options to meet the growing needs and wants of these companies and organizations.

The unfortunate result was our market share dwindled, and our competitors grew and dominated the market. Many of our sales people, including myself, left the company. This was a sad ending that never needed to happen, had we anticipated the changes coming, and proactively responded.

In their excellent book Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, they share some insights on helping you and the people in your organization, change.

One of the key factors to know, is that simply understanding the problem doesn’t give you a solution. It goes much deeper than that.

When it comes to our ability to change our mind about how we are doing some part of our job, there are two other factors to consider:

  1. Our rational side
  2. Our emotional and instinctive side

The first step is to point out the facts. Where do we want to go or what is our goal? This addresses the rational side of the brain we are trying to influence. The second part of addressing the rational side of the brain is to script the critical moves. What do we need to do to get there?

The second step is to find the feeling. What are the emotions we are trying to identify and engage with, that will get us and our people to really buy into the feeling of success that can come when we make this change?

The second part of finding the feeling is doing what it takes to grow ourselves and our people. We must engage in the training or new system that will take us to our goal.

After the first two steps are in motion, the third step is to continue to practice the new skills and habits we are developing and tweak the environment as we go.

Let’s take a look at an actual example of how this worked for a company. In their book, The Heart of Change by John Kotter and Dan Cohen, they discuss how Joe Stegner, a leader who worked for a large manufacturer, identified how his company, through wasteful purchasing practices, was wasting vast sums of money buying work gloves for its employees.

Part of the problem was, different factories, that were part of this manufacturer, purchased their work gloves from different vendors.

This was the pink elephant in the room. Yet this practice went on for years until Joe Stegner came up with a plan. He had a summer intern identify all the types of gloves used in all the company’s factories, and trace back what the company was paying for them. The intern reported that they were purchasing 424 different kinds of gloves. Depending on the location, for the same pair of gloves, they were paying anywhere between $3.22 and $17.

“At Stenger’s request, the student collected a specimen of every one of the 424 different types of gloves and tagged each with the price paid. Then all the gloves were gathered up, brought to the boardroom and piled up on the conference table. Stegner invited all the division presidents to come visit the Glove Shrine.”

What followed was unforgettable. “For several minutes the presidents were speechless. It was rare that they didn’t have anything to say but this day they just stood with their mouths gaping.”

If Stegner had simply provided spreadsheets showing the variances in purchase prices for the gloves, it would not have had the same impact. But because these presidents were able to see and feel the impact of the gloves piled high on the conference room table, it sparked a shift in the way they thought and felt, and more importantly how they acted in supporting the change.

It wasn’t long after this demonstration that the company instituted a change (new skills and habits) in its glove purchasing process, and tweaked it over a period of time. This resulted in the manufacturer saving over $1 billion dollars during the next 5 years.

How about your company? What is the pink elephant in the room? What change do you need to make? Remember the steps Chip Heath and Dan Heath recommend.

Address the following:

  • Rational side – address the facts
  • Emotional side – address the feelings
  • Practice new habits and tweak the environment as you go.

When you follow this approach, you will exceed your own expectations of what you might have, at first thought, was not possible.

Email me to receive the companion exercise to this article that will help you implement the necessary changes in your company or organization and get rid of the pink elephant.

Tom BorgTom Borg is founder and president of Tom Borg Consulting LLC. For over 25 years he has been helping business owners, presidents, CEOs and their teams in the manufacturing industry. He works at the intersection of leadership, communication and culture. He may beached at 734-404-5909 or tom@tomborg.