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The Blind Men and the Elephant

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If you work, you probably manage projects every day-even if "project manager" isn't in your official title-and you know how frustrating the experience can be. Using the familiar story of six blind men failing to describe an elephant to each other as a metaphor, David Schmaltz brilliantly identifies the true root cause of the difficulties in project work: "incoherence" (the inability of a group of people to make common meaning from their common experience).
Schmaltz exposes such oft-cited difficulties as poor planning, weak leadership, and fickle customers as poor excuses for project failure, providing a set of simple, project coherence-building techniques that anyone can use to achieve success. He explains how "wickedness" develops when a team over-relies on their leader for guidance rather than tapping their true source of power and authority-the individual.
The Blind Men and the Elephant explores just how much influence is completely within each individual's control. Using real-world stories, Schmaltz undermines the excuses that may be keeping you trapped in meaningless work, offering practical guidance for overcoming the inevitable difficulties of project work.

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1: The Blind Men

ePub


It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.


The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”


The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”


The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up he spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”


The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“’Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”


The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

 

2: The Elephant

ePub

15


It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

—From “The Blind Men and the
       Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe

Each project engagement reminds me again of these blind men around an elephant. Each blind man discovers a piece of an overall ungraspable whole. From within each individual’s personal experience, it seems only reasonable to conclude that everyone else arrayed around the beast experiences this animal as he does, that his personal experience reasonably mirrors every other’s, but it most certainly does not. When each blind man can integrate with his own perspective every other blind man’s curious testimony, a collective coherence emerges along with the elephant. This coherence creates remarkable possibilities, as if the blind men could actually see through each other’s eyes. When they cannot integrate their stories, as John Godfrey Saxe reminds us, their projects degrade into the incoherence of “theologic wars,” where each combatant endlessly argues against every other combatant’s religiously held opinion. Such deeply held differences of opinion cannot be logically resolved. These wars are won only by those refusing to engage in battle.

 

3: The Wall

ePub

27


The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

—From “The Blind Men and the
       Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe

There’s always someone at the start of every project. Someone’s not ready, while everyone else strains at the reins. When we set to work, this one drags his feet. He complains about irrelevant things and seems not to be hastening slowly or otherwise. He’s a pain in the butt.

Most ignore him and get on with their real work. Some try to push him off his dime. Sometimes they succeed in getting him moving with the others, but he engages hesitantly, as if he has left something important behind. Later he will seem to have forgotten about whatever felt so very important at the beginning, but the memory of it will occasionally return to inconvenience him, and his reaction then will inconvenience those around him.

28

We might be taught to hasten slowly at the beginning, to cautiously consider before proceeding, but most of us quickly figure out how to ditch any roadblock between us and full speed ahead, leaving the careful considerer behind. We take a deft sidestep or an innocent about-face, but we usually avoid the wall that so evidently blocks progress.

 

4: The Spear

ePub

43


The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

—From “The Blind Men and the
       Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe

I don’t know much about being a soldier. I worked very hard at avoiding military service. I conscientiously objected to the notion that the military could settle anything, or could make anyone safer, especially with me as a part of it. Above all, I objected to the idea of blindly following anyone else’s orders, no matter how much sense the orders seemed to make to him. My head still echoes with stories of the Somme, Antietam, and Gallipoli, where generals’ delusions played out into fields of freshly planted conscripts. I would have made a very bad soldier, and I clearly had no business in the military. I was surprised when my draft board agreed with my self-assessment and decided that it didn’t want me!

I learned a little bit about projects in that process.

 

5: The Snake

ePub

57

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up he spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

—From “The Blind Men and the
      Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe

There’s an old folktale about a man who met a snake while walking down a road.

“Excuse me,” said the man, “but you look exactly like a snake.”

“That’s because I am a snake,” replied the snake. “But I am not like other snakes. I am not poisonous, or constrictive, or the sort of individual who would harm anyone.”

“Oh, how interesting,” continued the man. “I’ve never met a kind snake before. Would you like to come home with me to dinner?”

“I’d be charmed,” said the snake.

58

So the man picked up the snake and took him home to have dinner with his family. The man tried to calm his family’s concerns when they saw him bringing a snake into the house. “This is a different sort of snake,” he explained. “Not the poisonous or constrictive or in any way harmful kind. There’s no need to be alarmed.”

 

6: The Tree

ePub


The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“’Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

—From “The Blind Men and the
       Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe

Have you ever listened to yourself as you’ve prepared your project’s plan? If so, you might have heard the voice that was providing the play-by-play commentary asking more questions than you thought you had about planning. Listen between the words. If you’re not enjoying the planning, you might be spouting …

It’s 10 o’clock Sunday night. Dinner’s long over, and the kids are tucked into bed as most of the rest of the world prepares for sleep. I’m stewing at my desk. Well, I’m not stewing, exactly, I’m more like panicking! I’ve gone and done it this time! I’ve committed to getting a plan completed for my project by 10 tomorrow morning, and I haven’t gotten any further than to start up my PowerBook and watch the damned incessant, aptly named cursor wink impatiently at me.

 

7: The Fan

ePub

93


The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

—From “The Blind Men and the
       Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe

Can you imagine a more pitiful sight than someone trying to motivate another? I can’t. If I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that my motivating efforts have always become rope pushes. Yet volumes have been written on the subject of motivating others. How do you motivate a project team? What motivates community? Is it really your team members’ responsibility to rely upon you to motivate them? Can anyone actually motivate another?

Can a project leader fan the embers of commitment into a dedicated, high-performance flame? What if he can’t? Must community members submit to such humiliation, as if they require the kindly hand of some benevolent parent to goad them into productivity? What if they don’t?

94

Maybe dangling carrots are necessary when a project pursues some truly awful objective. But where a mutually self-interested community pursues an alluring objective, introducing external motivation seems the equivalent of injecting a fine prosciutto with artificial additives. Most projects are not pursuing awful objectives. Many that are pursuing disagreeable goals could redefine their targets into really alluring ones. A better question? “How do we engineer a mutually self-interested effort?” Where someone decides that motivating techniques are necessary, I’ve learned, the project probably won’t be worth participating in. I usually choose to leave rather than submit to motivation to resolve the naturally hopeless feelings I experience when participating in hopeless efforts. These feelings are simply trying to tell me that I don’t belong there.

 

8: The Rope

ePub


The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

—From “The Blind Men and the
       Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe

Will Rogers was an artist with a rope. He could twirl two lassos at once, alternately jumping into and back out of each of them while making witty comments about current events.

I’m no Will Rogers. The only trick I ever accomplished with a rope, as my mother never fails to remind me, was the time I made a lasso and managed to snare my brother around his neck as he rode past the back porch on his bicycle. We both survived.

My grandfather was a cowboy. He used to tell me how a rattlesnake would never cross a hemp rope. He would ring his sleeping blanket with a rope before bedding down at night to keep the snakes out of his bed. He claimed to have awakened one morning to find his rope askew and a snake under the covers. I don’t think this story was true, but my grandfather never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Neither did Will Rogers. Still, I’m more like my grandfather than I am like Will Rogers. I’m better at stories than I am at rope tricks.

 

9: Theologic Wars

ePub

123


And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!



Moral:
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

—From “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe

I have spent most of my professional life feeling like a heretic engaged in project theologic wars. I came to this role honestly, as most come to project work. Using my training and experience in operational work, I had organized people, drafted procedures, created metrics, and assessed efficiency. I innocently brought these skills to my project work as if they would be directly applicable. I found a methodology that my peers and I inflicted upon our customers. Our results disappointed all of us.

124

My partner tells the story of returning from her first project management training to discover that her projects ran worse when she applied the processes she learned there. Later, reflecting on this result, she fell back to applying the techniques she’d learned selling Tupperware, and her project performance improved. She had discarded her most applicable experience when she assumed her new responsibilities. Selling Tupperware taught her the fundamentals of building community, which were exactly applicable to managing a Fortune 100 company’s reengineering project. Who would have guessed?

 

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