The user shows the way: elephant paths in organizational change

The elephant path. Wikipedia knows what it is. There, an elephant path is an "unofficial bicycle or walking path that is created intentionally and unintentionally by users of regular bicycle and walking paths over time." It's the shortest way to get from A to B.


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The user shows the way: elephant paths in organizational change

Just as elephants always choose the shortest path, creating their own trails throughout the Savannah. A man-made elephant path is proof that people do not want to be forced to follow a calibrated path, but look for the shortest way possible. After all, elephant trails never turn out to be longer than the official route. I wonder how the elephant path can play a role in organizational change. After all, the elephant path concept fits well with the idea of working on change with what is already there.

If you look closely, you can see the solution

English synonyms for the elephant path turn out to be “desire line” or “desire path”. The path of desire. The path we actually desire to take. Creating or fostering desire is one of the great challenges in organizational change. I cited in a previous article that you should not create desire for a solution that people are not asking for. It is better to create enthusiasm by choosing or creating a solution based on the needs you detect and then answer. The elephant path shows the needs (and consequently the desire to take that path) of walkers and cyclists. If you look closely, you can see the solution.

In urban planning, elephant trails are sometimes used to plan new trails. In Yosemite National Park, elephant trails are used to plan new hiking routes.

Elephant trails tell us about the endless human desire for choice — Professor Andrew Furman

As long as there have been people, there have been elephant trails

It is striking that elephant paths in spatial planning are often opposed by responsible urban planners. As if it were something to be fought. You could say that the creation of elephant paths is due to poor design by planners and architects. I don’t think they are doing a bad job. From their perspective (beautiful design or safety) they create the best solution. But maybe they don’t approach the design of public space flexibly enough. Such a space should be adaptable. Fixing something entirely to what you have thought up and thinking that people will behave accordingly is prescriptive, restrictive and just doesn’t work.

The more stakeholders, the more complex the solution

This also happens within organizational change. A change is thought out in detail beforehand. Various stakeholders are involved and give their input, including employees. However, the more stakeholders involved, the more complex the solution becomes and the further it will be from those needs that are the key to achieving the desired goal. You should always keep that in mind in your change approach. And make choices by weighing the interests of different stakeholders against each other in function of the real goal or the real change you want to see.

Admiration for elephant paths

Wanting to fight elephant paths is also seen in organizations. Informal routes that people have devised themselves and by which they pass the slower, formal system are often seen as resistance or rebelliousness and difficult to accept. While therein perhaps lies one of the keys to effortless organizational change. Elephant paths are powerful and ineradicable. You can look at them with indignation and resist them. Or you can look at them with admiration and start working with them.

If we succeed in discovering the elephant paths that are already there, or can map them out and work with them while we change, then you work with the will of the people and things will go a lot smoother.

Feedback-driven change

If you design a change based on a number of theoretical or scientific insights, insufficiently tested with actual behavior, then there is a real chance that it will not work and is therefore a ‘bad design’. You may be the best designer, but you will never be able to predict all the elephant paths. That is why it is important not to want to design and lay down everything in advance when you implement change in your organization. It is better to choose a basic design in which employees can create their own paths. In this way you use the wisdom of the crowd and further shape change while implementing it. Change through learning or feedback-driven change, in other words.

The learning office building

A great example is the Adidas office building in Germany. They have set up the “My Arena” project. Their future workplace is developed by their own employees in a test building called PITCH. In it, they test all possible fixtures and tools until they have a setup that meets all their work needs. In the test building, employees are simply working, moving furniture and materials around according to their needs. If they then create their office based on those insights into existing habits, the design will better match the employees and their needs. We often try to identify those needs, through interviews for example, but people don’t always know what they need. That is often unconscious. By observing behavior you will get closer to the real needs and the best working solution.

The learning L&D approach

Buffer is a fully distributed team of 85 people living and working in 15 countries around the world. They work on products that help their clients build and grow brands through social media. In 2017, they launched Stipend, their low-threshold L&D approach to getting more colleagues to learn. Stipend amounts to giving employees a fixed budget per month or year with which they can fill their own learning needs. No direction was given, only the budget was the framework. Then they analyzed where and what was learned. Buffer is a relatively small company that has to work with limited resources. As a result, all initiatives are almost an experiment in themselves. But even if you already have an L&D policy, experimenting with new forms such as a personal budget is an ideal way to gather insights with limited risk and then shape further change. Give employees a personal budget, observe/analyze what they do with it, engage in dialogue and understand what the real need is. Ultimately, the purpose of L&D is not to organize learning processes, but to get and keep employees learning. The means and the end are too often confused.

Using existing habits is easier than creating new ones

Changing habits is difficult. So if it is possible to work with existing habits, why not do it more? For those cases where “how something is done” matters less (and the goal is also achieved), elephant paths can save us a lot of work and effort. The basic condition, of course, is that the elephant path helps us in the change that is intended. If you want to protect a natural area, you will want to avoid or impede elephant paths in certain places. If you want people to learn, you will want to avoid the elephant path of quick online learning material click-throughs. Not all organizational elephant paths are helpful.

Making the invisible visible

One of the reasons we don’t use this more often is that the elephant paths of organizational change are less visible. How do you find the elephant path of lifelong learning, the new way of working, customer-centric work?

This will have to be distilled from a combination of sources. On the one hand, you can arrive at insights into human behavior through observation, interviews, diaries and other research methods. As mentioned earlier, observation is -where it can- the best option. Observing natural behavior is a much more accurate indicator of people’s needs than trying to ascertain needs from interviews.

Look at what people are doing now. Where is the wear and tear in your office carpet? How are customers received now? When and how do employees have meetings now? Another source of insights is the Sensemaking method, a tool that Patrick Vandenberghe (Team Behavioral Insights of the Department of Chancellery and Administration of the Flemish government) tipped me off to. This is a way of listening collectively, collecting stories and recognizing patterns on which to work further. And of course the use of data is also crucial to discover some habits or things that work. This can be about offline as well as online data. Heatmaps, cookie tracking, and other tools that collect tracking data can be used to discover patterns and elephant paths.

How do you discover elephant paths?

Everything starts with being curious about the informal organization. Consciously look for elephant paths in your organization. If you want to get a better idea of how patients are treated in your hospital or department, to improve that experience, sit down in the reception area and see, hear and feel how patients are helped. Or immerse yourself as a patient. Experience it for yourself. Listen to how colleagues communicate with each other, whether they offer a cup of coffee, where patients sit, whether they are at ease or not, what they do while waiting…. In this way, you may find that employees are doing things that were not conceived from policy and are working well. Maybe they are following parts of devised processes and not other parts.

It’s important to find out why people do this, because that often holds new insights. Such exercises have been around for a long time and are a starting point for many improvement methods, but the focus is mainly on pain points and much less on bright spots. And it is not used very much to gain insights around habits and how this can be used to increase success on change.

What works best in my experience is to start from a clear change that is desired and look for the elephant paths for that. Defining the scope is important and depends on the stage of change you are in. At Soulcenter, the first version of the software was based on broad insights about warm care. For further improvements to the software and approach, we need to look rather for more concrete insights around the steps in that change. For example, one of the things we are now looking at is how to make it easier to use the software so that staff members lose the least amount of time and get the most value from the application. Finding the elephant paths can help us in our further design.

The paths to relationship-based care in residential care centers

What is the desired change?

Here we look at the desired behaviors of employees in residential care centers for a specific component of relationship-based care, namely matching residents with meaningful activities. The essential behaviors we see as needed are:

  • Meet the resident
  • Invite family to contribute
  • Plan a meaningful activity
  • What is already in place.

For each of the 3 essential behaviors, we then look for what is already in place or happening. For example, there is an intake meeting for each resident, usually with family present, which includes medical care and practical issues. We then want to better understand this conversation.

We will look for how staff members are now in contact with family. What works well? What are good examples of good interaction between family, residents and residential care center? Where are the elephant paths here? We will try to find out by means of stories of employees. These are not only stories that surface at the time of our research, but can also emerge during the many moments of contact every day. Our ears are our antennae.

For the activities, we look at what is already happening in terms of activities. What elements of what is already happening are relevant? How are they organizing that now? Who is already applying the meaningful activities method or parts of it? If there is too little experience with it, we will on the one hand observe how they are already using our software and build on those insights and on the other hand look over the walls at how other sectors have already solved this. Elephant paths can be sector -or organization-specific, but are often the result of deeper and universal human drivers. Understanding the psychology behind a particular behavior can help you find solutions elsewhere.

What are the patterns?

From the insights that come from previous step, we distill the common threads and patterns between different departments and residential care centers. The elephant paths don’t show you why people do what they do. For that you will have to dig deeper deeper and try to discover the pattern by talking to people.

We focus with the elephant trails on what already works. How can we use those stimuli? For example, how can we use the introductory period (initial conversations, intake conversation, moving in, getting to know the house,…) to get to know the resident more deeply. What is the right time? What is the easiest path? From the insights, of course, come obstacles that we also analyze further.

How can we use the elephant trails?

Finally, we continue to work with those patterns. We devise solutions to encourage use with the goal of having residents experience more meaningful activities. We determine which ideas are the highest priorities, based on time, energy and impact and put them on our project schedule.

Please note, the example described here is not a complete change approach, but a part of designing change. Think of it as a design principle. Elephant paths alone won’t get you there, but they are a crucial part of your change approach. This exercise makes you look for what is already there. And use the stimuli that are already there. It’s an important part of the user adoption of your solution. So be more of a change architect who puts the extra hours into understanding user needs, rather than the one who thinks he or she knows what people need.


*Picture elephant path by Jan-Dirk van der Burg on


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