The Mahout, the Elephant and the Path—an analogy for change

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 25, 2010
Filed in Communication

Dan and Chip Heath have a new book coming out (Feb) and they sent me a copy of the first chapter. The title is Switch and like their last best seller, Made to Stick, it promises to be a keeper. It’s all about how to motivate people to change. The first chapter has left an indelible impression because of the strong image they conjured to explain what we need to consider to influence change: the Mahout (they call it The Rider), the Elephant and the Path.


Changing behaviour involves a struggle between our rational and well-reasoned thinking and our emotional urges. The mahout represents the rational and reasoned. If the mahout clearly understands where he needs to go he’ll direct his charge that way.

The elephant represents emotional urges. While the elephant might be happy to go the way the mahout directs, if she decides to go another direction there is not a single thing the mahout can do about it.

The path represents anything that might impede or assist the mahout and the elephant to get to where they are going. You want the path to be as easy to follow as possible.

So how does this translate to a business setting? Imagine you’re a leader of an organisation that’s decided to compete on exemplary customer service. To engage the mahout you need a clear rationale describing why customer service is so important. You would find the research that shows the factors that influence customer service and illustrate to the mahout in everyone the concrete actions you want them to take. Engaging the Mahout, however, is the easy part and the one most organisations spend most of their time doing. The hard bit is the elephant.

Engaging the elephant, the emotion, will take action and stories about things that happened. You might start by telling some stories of customer service blunders to grab their attention. Here’s one that happened to me recently. It’s important you find stories from the organisation. Real life examples. Negative stories, however, often in themselves wont change behaviour, partly because people don’t know exactly what they need to do to get it right. So you also need to find stories of great customer service from your company. We call them Gibson stories because William Gibson (the sci-fi writer) once said: “the future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.” You just need to find these stories that represent your company’s future. Tell them. Get people to discuss them. Inspire that elephant.

After engaging the mahout and the elephant you need to pave the path and remove anything that’s getting in the way of progress. This might be a rewards system that’s encouraging the wrong behaviour. Or it might be an IT system that is unintegrated and hard for call centre staff to use slowing down their support for customers. There are a myriad of obstacles to remove from the path.

Don’t forget, the Heath brothers were the authors of Made to Stick which dedicates a chapter to the power of stories. Chapter one is full of great stories. Some you might have already heard, such as the 424 gloves that save a company millions or the 100,000 lives saves by the Donald Berwick and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

The Heath brothers conclude the chapter by saying:

Whether the switch you seek is in your family, in your charity, in your organization, or in society at large, you’ll get there by making three things happen. You’ll direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path.

Photo credit: goofball12

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Greg Stewart says:

    Shawn – if you’re looking for stories of great customer service, the American group Nordstrom’s has made their name by empowering a customer service culture through the power of story: The mahout is clear, and they’ve paved the path nicely(Nordstrom employees don’t have to get any clearance or approval to spend money putting customer situations right), but the real driver of their behaviour is in their stories. They turn the stories of their employees’ actions – which in some companies would be sackable offences – into legend. They even spread outside the company and in to business textbooks. Among them is the story of the ‘Nordie’ who hired a helicopter in the name of customer service. Nice.

  2. Shawn – this is an awesome post. Thanks for going into the heart of change and story. I continue to be fascinated by the creative tension between “possibility” and “expectation” and how each spheres effects the shape of the story.
    We’re long overdue to connect and chat. Admire what you’ve been blogging on. I also would love to get your impressions on my storytelling manifesto, and in general shoot the light fandango.

  3. Hi Michael. Thanks for your positive comments. I first heard your name from Mary Alice Arthur and of course after that I have been enjoying your posts and now your manifesto. I bought it as soon as it was available. Loved it. It would be good to catch up on Skype and chat. I much prefer talking to typing despite all the things I write.

  4. virginia Yonkers says:

    Shawn, what this post points out is that any change has to take into consideration balancing the logistical with the emotional. Too often, even stories of organizational problems boil it down to an “objective” view. However, every problem has a perspective that must also be considered. Good stories not only allow you to “describe the situation”, but also to connect to the emotions (empathize) which you may or may not have in an objective account.
    For example, I was just teaching a class on international legal systems. I was trying to demonstrate what impact doing business in a foreign legal system will have on your business. However, I used the href=””>”Amanda Knox case” as to how expectations in one legal system without knowing the other legal system, can have an impact. Suddenly, all of my students (the same age as Amanda Knox) were listening intently. The emotion of the story, made them want to understand what happens when a common law country interacts with a code law. They could relate to the story and were able to understand a bit more the complexity of the situation.

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