In the previous article I explored “Black Elephants” which are what arises when the ‘Elephant in the Room’ is mated with a ‘Black Swan’, and a politics gets built around not acknowledging an oncoming problem as a problem.

When the Black Elephant, that people have been avoiding, arrives people will announce “no one could have expected this!” and it now may be too late to solve the problem anyway, so the consequences are worse than if it had been recognised earlier. This process of avoidance is tied into power dynamics and what is acceptable to the group. We could call this process ‘the social construction of ignorance’, as opposed to ‘the social construction of knowledge’.

Obvious examples of Black Elephants include most of the world’s ecological problems, which we hope are not going to be that big, and the possibility of pandemics, which we should have been prepared for. Similarly, that we going through one pandemic at the moment, does not mean we cannot have another at the same time, or that this one will not return.

Can we engage with Black Elephants?

The main problem is that a Black Elephant is not just an officially unrecognised problem, but a denied problem. Dominant people don’t want to talk about it. There is a tacit agreement not to talk about it. Its a bit of random chaos or not that important. There may even be penalties for trying to find out about it, or talking about it. You may get snubbed, or abused, by your groups if you mention it, and everyone will be relieved when the subject is dropped. No one has any acceptable model for dealing with it. Social organisation and its values could even be built around this denial, just as there are no servants in Jane Austen novels, although ‘everyone important’ depends upon them and their subservience. The Black Elephant maybe something most people know something about, but they probably do not know that much, as there is no incentive to find out about it. Some people may go out of their way to explain there is no Black Elephant, or it is not as bad as the evil idiots have made it out to be.

Given that it is a socially denied problem and there is social reinforcement of that denial, then openly recognising the problem is difficult, and so solving the problem is difficult. Any solution-process that does not recognise the fundamentally social nature of the problem, its denial and the difficulty of acknowledging the Black Elephant, is probably going to fail.

This means we have to study the rather undeveloped field of the sociology of ignorance (which is sometimes known as agnotology) .

Some pointers to the sociology of ignorance

Problems of hierarchy: such as:

  • Celine’s Law- (“good communication is only possible between equals”), in which people get punished for being bearers of bad news, or the high-ups cannot admit mistakes or vulnerability for fear of loss of face, status, power or wealth.
  • The Peter Principle in which people get promoted to their level of incompetence, and destroy competence around them and beneath them, partly because of
  • Dunning-Kruger effects, they don’t recognise competence when they see it, or do not want to be challenged.
  • Internal focus in which ‘managers’ get more status, power or wealth focusing on gathering internal rewards (office furniture, windows, golf games with important people, funding, more staff etc) than from focusing on external problems.
  • Deniability when the leaders are not be aware of the dirty, illegal or stupid tactics that underlings deploy, in order to carry out the leader’s instructions, or the underlings’ idea of the leader’s instructions.

Sometimes we can hear the argument that flatter hierarchies negate some of these problems, but that is not always the case.

The fewer the steps between the centre and the periphery, the more a hyper-dominant centre can overwhelm the periphery, and render it unable to adapt. The hyper-dominance may lessen ‘unofficial’ information flow still further – even if they can record every key stroke made the periphery. Flat organisations may only work in the long term, if the power differential, or inequality, between the levels is not that great.

Other Oganisational factors

  • Siloing in which different groups in the same organisation are walled off from each other, cannot talk to each other, replicate similar work, or are overridden as of minor importance when they are central.
  • Parkinson’s Law “work expands to fill the time available” or, as a corollary, managers make work for others to show that they are important and in control. This extra work then distracts the organisation’s members from dealing with problems of reality. They don’t have time.
  • Haga’s Law or organisation reduces anxiety and increases the ease of doing things, but there comes a point when the payoffs become less and the organising takes more and more energy for less and less results, which produces anxiety which leads to further organising, and less time for thinking or doing useful work, or recognising future problems.
  • Standardised Lack of Responsibility. Quite frequently organisations and high-ups have standardised ways of avoiding responsibility for their actions and policies. It may be a form of ‘distributed governance’, in which there is always someone else to blame, or channels of authority are not clear. Or it may be forms of attack – there are identifiable “bad people” who can be blamed for any events. Habitual ambiguity of instructions, or contradictory commands can be another form. This latter technique can also function to give those lower-down more freedom to act appropriately, and for the higher-up to take credit for whatever works, and condemn whatever doesn’t.
  • Information structures which hide information from various people.
  • Data is collected because it can be. The more data can be collected, the more time is wasted collecting it and analysing it in the hope it will be useful. If there is too much data, important events can get lost.
  • Disinformation society. In information society there is so much information that almost any argument can be justified in the short term. So without a real desire to explore the Black Elephant, the Elephant can be recognised and downplayed. For example, Bjorn Lomborg can always find some reputable organisation which says, or which produces figures which show, that climate change, while a problem, is not a serious or urgent problem. As a result, all the figures which show it is likely to be truly serious can be ignored. If people don’t want to find out that there is a problem. then they don’t ever have to look for those figures and see what Mr Lomborg is doing. Now he may be acting like this, because if he didn’t then there are groups of people who would not see climate change at all. And it is possibly better that they see it, and think about doing something useful, in other ways, than not to see it at all.
  • Knowledge and Status in ‘knowledge societies’, people are supposedly graded by knowledge and ability. Those higher up can be expected to know everything, and thus refuse to listen to those below, when those below may know things not known by those above. For higher-ups admitting they were wrong can be impossible as it appears to admit their position is not legitimate, yet everyone is wrong occasionally, and failure is one of the ways we learn.
  • Organisational roles, which make the Black Elephants someone else’s problem or indeed create particular Black Elephants by not having a recognised position to deal with those kinds of problems.

Problems of Language and Culture


This is a complicated factor, and much has been written about it, but we can reasonably uncontroversially say that language draws attention to particular features of the world. Different languages may classify the world in different ways – they have different colour terms for example. Languages do not translate exactly because they have different world models. By directing attention to particular features of the world language directs attention away from other features. Thus the language you use may help create Black Elephants, through this direction or through its categories.

Organisations sometimes develop specialist languages and models for work, which again show parts of the world and hide or ignore others. An organisation, for example, might see things entirely in terms of good and evil, where good, means agrees with them, and evil means disagrees with them, and so they become unable to see the ‘evil’ (as classified by them) they do themselves. A language arises as a culture makes a world and deals with a world.

One of the problems with any example of language is that meaning depends on interpretation, and the context of the ‘sentences’, writing or utterance, helps influence their meaning for the interpreter, and this happens in many different ways. We can never guarantee that what we have written will be interpreted in the way we intended. This is why great poems or novels can never be exhausted, they are seen in different contexts by different interpreters. This is also why scientists tend to use mathematics, and frames of objectivity to limit context variability. Culture is one way of trying to give similar contexts, shared contexts with other people. But it is not the only way, and when used to interpret sentences from another culture, or subculture, can frequently be misleading. Violence can be deployed to reduce apparent misunderstanding. This just suppresses obvious variation.

If you write, or announce, a programme, expect that people will read what it differently, or sometimes with difficulty. Communication involves misunderstanding as much as understanding.


I’m only going to mention one factor here, common in the English speaking world, and that is the positive thinking ‘bundle’ (a collection of destructive reinforcing patterns).

Positive Thinking

Many contemporary people and organisations praise positive thinking. This can become a unofficial but compulsory positivity bundle. These positivity people may say that someone who finds problems is negative or unmotivated, or bad in some other way, and deserves to be silenced or let go. That events are sure to get better. We are marvelous and will deal with the Black Elephants easily when they become prominent enough to cause passing trouble. Problems are unreal and so on. Such an organisation is probably avoiding many Black Elephants. It is also probably good at spreading disinformation, because it only allows the information which suggests it is doing very well, and dismisses all criticism. People may again, be frightened of saying anything negative, or pointing out anything negative, as they think that will make the negative event happen, or that others will judge them as weak.

This positivity bundle is harmful. It is not the same as being able to recognise problems and not let them get you down; recognise that you can either solve them easily or with effort, take advantage of them, need to call in an expert to fix them, or need to evacuate now.

The Elephant Paradoxes

There are many other factors in the dynamics of ignorance, but we do seem to have a specific set of paradoxes about Black Elephants.

First Black Elephant Paradox. People who are doing the problem solving, particularly those people who are dominant or high status, have to want to explore and recognise the Black Elephants – and if we had that, we probably would not have the Black Elephants to begin with.

Second Black Elephant Paradox. The organisations tools of knowledge, like language, culture and technology, may direct attention away from the things the organisation needs to know about.

Third Black Elephant Paradox. Facing Black Elephants takes effort and risks disturbance. It may mean organisational change, which then occupies people’s attention so much, that they go back to ignoring the Black Elephants.

Fourth Black Elephant Paradox The problem space must be open, yet the more open the problem space is to recognising Black Elephants, the more unending the process, and the easier it is to avoid Black Elephants because of finding other more acceptable, easier to deal with, problems – especially such problems the organisation, or certain factions of the organisation, already acknowledge.

Fifth Black Elephant Paradox. To survive in one system, we may need to act in a certain way which threatens survival in another system. To see the threat to our survival in one system may create a threat to our survival in the other system. This paradox creates Black Elephants, as well as providing an incentive to ignore them.

Sixth Black Elephant Paradox.This is not really a paradox, but its close. The organisation may be so busy avoiding the big Black Elephant that they get eaten by termites. Avoiding a Black Elephant may lead to more immediate and recognisable threats being ignored as well. A Black Elephant can be sheltered by other Black Elephants.

With this in mind let us look at some potential ways of solving for Black Elephants. No guarantee is provided that these will work. This is a blog post.


One fundamental feature of dealing with Black Elephants is that there must be as much equity and open communication as possible, with no penalties for pointing to an unpopular problem. It must be possible to challenge the hierarchy. If this is not allowed then Black Elephants will not be faced.

Open communication is polite and non-threatening. People can say that communication which allows threatening-communication is real open communication, but the point of threats is shut people down. So this demonstrates another paradox: open communication involves restraints, but restraints can curtail communication.

Perhaps the inquiry can be conducted at a particular level in the organisation, in order to free the upper levels from potential inclusion. However the upper levels have to consider and take seriously the results of the inquiries, which is unusual. Every year some organisations find out that workers are unhappy with upper level management, and every year these results can be ignored, downplayed, or seen as purely political. Management has to be able to take criticism as important and meaningful feedback. This is difficult, even if open communication is promised. Criticism can also be political.

Seeking blocks

The first step is to find the blocks to Black Elephant recognition. We firstly have to assume there are Black Elephants. Without that assumption we probably will not find them.

This process involves a negative set of questions, such as: What the processes of ignorance and unconsciousness in our organisation? How can these processes be lessened, or undermined? What will be effective? We can look at some of the factors listed above to start with.

If a Black Elephant is suggested, what would it mean? If it means the organisation should not exist, this is a major block to its recognition. Very few people will destroy an organisation which gives them power, status, and income, to save the world from a Black Elephant. Some will, but that might not be enough.

If such an elephant appears then what can be done to keep recognition of the Elephant and transform the organisation without it expanding the elephant, or attempting to deny the elephant?

Is it possible to change the organisation but keep some of its focus and purpose? Say a fossil fuel company decides to become an energy company. How is this to be done? What relevant expertise and material capital do they already have? For instance an oil company might know how to build floating platforms which can be used for wind power. They may know how to transmit power, or oil, via undersea cables etc….

Blocks need to be made conscious, in order to progress.

Seeking destruction

Another fundamental question for exploration is – what kind of processes does our organisation engage in, which are destructive of its aims?

As a general heuristic, we could propose that: “Most forms of order, create disorder as unintended consequences of their modes of ordering.” If the blocks to perception and information are removed then we might be more able to see what these unintended consequences are and avoid them or deal with them.

If the organisation has a strong authoritarian hierarchy or a culture of fear (which leaders will probably not be able to recognise, or the culture of fear would not exist), it may be possible to ask people to put in anonymous submissions. It may also be useful to explain that destructive ordering is normal, and then appoint a group to explore what kinds of destructive ordering exist in the organisations relations to its ‘ecology’ (business, social, political, technological, religious, environmental, resources, educational etc). As we shall suggest in part two, exploring different contexts in which Black Elephants and self-undermining behaviour, can appear is vital to finding these problems.

An Official Elephant Hunter

Create a high-level semi-tenured position that looks for Black Elephants and informs the organisation as a whole. The only way of removing the person is if they don’t find any Elephants. They have a place in all high level deliberations. They have the ability to produce a ‘committee,’ ‘workshop’ or whatever, that considers the issue of the Elephant and how the organisation deals with it.

Problem. If the other high-ups still don’t want to see it, or do anything about it, they won’t. They can also try to undermine the Elephant hunter. But that is always the case. By being able to communicate with all levels of the organisation, it is possible independent ways of dealing with the problem will emerge anyway, or that the Black Elephant will slip into organisational conversation.

Consultants are supposed to be Black Elephant Hunters, but they are often aware that they have been brought in to recommend particular procedures for which those hiring them do not want to take full responsibility, or who want evidence to justify what they want to do. They are sensitive to the wishes of those who pay the bills. If they get a reputation as unsatisfactory with the dominant management of this organisation, then they may lose work elsewhere, as these managers have ties across organisations. This is why the Black Elephant hunter is semi-tenured.

Expand consciousness

This step is relatively innocuous and does not involve drugs. It simply means, once the blocks are uncovered, how do we expand organisational awareness? The Elephant Hunter is an overt method, but to some extent identification of, and removal of as many blocks as possible will help the identification of what the organisation does not recognise in general, what the organisation does not want to know, and what we personally benefit from (in the short term) by not knowing? (how do we help build the fictive world of the organisation?).

Let us describe a simple management technique which can be employed by any new manager, but is almost never applied. Walk the floor. Talk to the staff you are responsible for, but without being critical or surveilling them (Really!). Catch people doing what seem to be good things and complement them. When there is some level of trust, ask people what could be improved? What procedures do not work? What are the blocks to them doing their job? Take them seriously, check with others, do something about it. Talk with people. Remove the blocks to performance before you do massive change or restructuring. Things may almost be working now. Indeed they probably do work to some extent, or the organisation would have already collapsed completely. Then ask people what the major problems are, especially the problems the organisation does not deal with well. These may be harder to fix. They may be Black Elephants. Try not to get captured by a particular faction, because your underlings will recognise this and information will be tailored to this, or politicised.

The workers, the people on the ‘coal face’ or in the ‘interface’ between organisations or between organisations and those they serve, are much more likely to see some sets of problems than people in management, who are insulated from daily practice, but who attempt to structure that practise. This is both a form of consciousness expansion and Black Elephant detection.

This is long enough…. Part II later…