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Teaching an elephant to dance – the art of agility, 1 of 5


“It isn’t a question of whether elephants can prevail over ants. It’s a question of whether a particular elephant can dance. If it can, the ants must leave the dance floor.”

– Louis V. Gerstner Jr., Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?

The book mentioned above is an account of IBM’s historic turnaround as told by Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., the chairman and CEO of IBM from April 1993 until March 2002. Lou Gerstner led IBM from the brink of bankruptcy and mainframe obscurity back to the forefront of the technology business.

Here he referred to a big organisation as an “elephant” – probably a metaphor still relevant today. And maybe even relevant to people in this day and age who feel constrained by organisational bureaucracy and an overwhelming sense of being required to do double the work, in half the time, with half the resources.

In this short article, the “being” of agile will be unpacked. Agile is more about how you approach problem solving and less about the tools used to support that approach. Agile is really a mindset, followed by the doing of agile.


Getting an elephant to dance starts with the elephant thinking she can dance, and then ingraining this into the actual “being” of the elephant. Agile people have a propensity to seek improvements, are more willing to consider information that is at odds with preconceived notions, and are more willing to be different and take risks. We believe the following defines some of the characteristics of the being of agile people:


Agile people are inquisitive people – they are what we call “professional question askers”. Toddlers are constantly asking “why?” and “why not?” We live in a world that has become so intent on finding a specific answer that we constantly ask the wrong question. Agile people ask new questions. Agile people are able to let go of their own pre-conceived ideas.


Writers of all kinds have commented, in many different ways, on the fact that human life is characterised by constant challenges to individuals, groups and communities. Some of these challenges are merely hassles, while others are of a more serious nature. Fact remains that one cannot experience life without at least some pain, and sometimes a great deal of it. Agile people have the ability to bounce back from setbacks.


It appears that agile people are able to let go. It is probably very hard to let go of something that worked in the past, in which a lot of time and energy has been invested. To let go is not to try and change or blame another or a situation; it’s to make the most of yourself. To let go is not to be the saviour every time someone makes a mistake. To let go is not to deny reality, but to accept that what cannot be changed. To let go is not to regret the past, but to adjust to the here and now. To let go is not to give up and admit defeat.


In this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, we yearn for simplicity and closure. As previously stated, we live in a world that places more value on finding answers than on asking questions. Despite understanding that business is multifaceted, there is a need for us to simplify. Einstein said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” It seems that we want to be able to predict outcomes and tightly control the path to achieving these outcomes. Agile people, though, make a conscious effort to steer away from the trusted and known, to embrace the unknown.

Embracing the unknown, however, is not the modern proclivity of jumping at each new management fad without the slightest idea as to whether it will actually improve a business. It seems to us that our rapidly changing business context is like a treadmill that compels people to be constantly curious, willing to give up on familiar approaches and to embrace the unknown.