Dandelion or Elephant?

The discovery of the dandelion/elephant framing was exciting and my fellow FLUX colleagues and I engaged in a rather fun “hacky sack of ideas” game, tossing the framing back and forth and looking at it from this side and that. One pattern that emerged was the “dandelion/elephant” test: is this company/team/product/concept a dandelion or an elephant? The test kept producing unsatisfactory results, making us wonder: are we holding this wrong? As usual, some new insights emerged. I will try to capture them here.

First things first: it is very easy to get disoriented about what it is that we’re testing. In our excitement, we’d forgotten that the biological equivalents of our subjects are strategies. The r-selected strategy and the K-selected strategy are approaches to the problem space that various species take. Similarly, “dandelion” or “elephant” aren’t attributes or states of an organization or product. They are strategies that an entity chooses to overcome a challenge it faces. In other words, it’s not something that an entity is or has, but rather how it acts.

Since it deals with strategies, the dandelion/elephant lens is highly contextual. A whole company or an organization or even a product is not beholden to just one strategy. There can be multiple, complementary sets of strategies for the same product. 

If I am building a REPL environment, I am clearly exercising the dandelion strategy in relation to its customers. I want ideas my customers have to be easily copyable, discoverable, fast to first results, etc. See the Interest, Legibility, Velocity, Access conditions I outlined earlier.

However, when considering how to organize the development of this REPL environment itself (all the infrastructure and tooling that goes into creating a dandelion field for others), I am likely to take an elephant strategy. I would want capabilities that enable me to build upon my idea, not continue to reinvent it from scratch every few months. I will seek higher reliability, more features, rigorous processes, and increasingly more powerful capabilities – the outcome of the Stability, Breadth, Rigor, and Power conditions.

Just like with any strategy, these are subject to becoming embodied. This is why I keep harping on about conditions. Us choosing to employ a given strategy is not a simple decision. It is a matter of the environment in which this decision is made. It is our environment that enables us to choose a strategy – or prevents us from doing so.

Here’s one way to think of it. Our strategy is an aggregate of the moves we individually make. If most of us are making dandelion moves (rapidly mutating ideas we discover, generating new ones without holding on to the old ones), we are in the dandelion environment. If instead, we seem to be making mostly elephant moves (collectively reinforcing one big idea, making it richer, more nuanced, more thorough, etc.), we are in the elephant environment. 

In either case, no matter how hard our leaders may call on us to change a strategy from the one we’ve currently embraced, we will only be able to produce gnarly beasts: dandelions with elephant trunks, or elephants made of pappus.

The contextual quality of the lens allows us to use it to spot inconsistencies of our intentions with our conditions. Once spotted, these inconsistencies can offer a lot of insight on what nudges to make to the cone of embodied strategy.

This framing of strategy challenges feels more hopeful to me. Instead of looking for someone to blame, look for the conditions that are present and whether or not these conditions are mismatched with the intention. If there is a distinct mismatch, look for ways to change conditions to align better with the desired outcomes.

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