Context and PurposeEdit

This script is used to introduce group model building participants to the concept of system dynamics. The purpose of the script is to provide a universal and easy to understand metaphor for complex systems.


Under development

Primary nature of group taskEdit



  1. Preparation time: 5 minutes
  2. Time required during session: 5 minutes


Paper or electronic image of elephant


Diagram of elephant


Familiarity with complex systems


Facilitator with training in system dynamics or community based system dynamics


Example of Diagram of an Elephant
  1. Before the session begins, display the image of the elephant on a screen or produce paper copies of the elephant image.
  2. The facilitator begins by stating “This exercise is intended to help us start thinking in terms of systems”
  3. The facilitator then passes out copies of the elephant image or directs people towards the projected image
  4. The facilitator explains that this image is based off an ancient parable, often referred to as the blind men and an elephant
  5. Participants are then asked if anyone has seen or heard of the story before, if participants have heard of it they are invited to share out their version of the story
  6. The facilitator briefly shares what is going on in the image. Each blind person feels a different part of the elephant's body; and exclaims “It’s a spear, It’s a snake, It’s a wall, It’s a tree stump, It’s a fan, It’s a rope”.
  7. Participants are asked to share what they think the image means
  8. Facilitator then affirms participants statements and clarifies as needed
  9. Facilitator then relates the image back to the purpose of the group model building by stating, “We all see components of a system and often the entire picture or system is complex, through the activities today we hope to gain a more complete view of our system as it relates to _______ (topic)”.
  10. Participants are told they can keep image of elephant if they like.

Evaluation CriteriaEdit

  1. Participants identify sub-components of the larger “elephant” system
  2. Participants are engaged and share their own interpretations of the parable
  3. Participants relate elephant metaphor to the complex problem they are currently modeling


Peter Hovmand


The parable of the blind men and an elephant dates back to ancient Indian and Buddhist text. It was first used in a system dynamics context by Peter Hovmand in his introduction of system dynamics to students at Washington University in St. Louis.


Kelly Connor, 2017



The script is mostly a presentation, but interactive in nature and an important function of this script is to engage participants in thinking about systems and share their interpretation of the parable.