The Blind Men and the Elephant
By: John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)
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!”
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!”
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!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate an an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
This poem was quoted by David A. Schmaltz in his book: “The Blind Men and the Elephant” about team work and Project Management. He says of the author (pgs. 11 & 12):
“He chooses six blind men to examine an elephant that none can see. Each discovers something unique. Their discoveries perfectly match the key dilemmas facing all of us who are blindingly pursuing our own meaningful results:
• One blind man interprets the side of the elephant as being between himself and anything meaningful.
• Another blind man interprets the elephant’s tusk as being the spear that a good soldier might feel obligated to carry into battle.
• Yet another blind man interprets the trunk as being the snake that no one should trust.
• Still another blind man interprets the elephant’s leg as being the tree trunk supporting his efforts.
• Another blind man interprets the elephant’s ear as being the fan that he might use to coax an ember into a flame.
• And the last blind man interprets the elephant’s tail as being the rope that can tie together a coherent whole.
Other ideas from David Schmaltz’ book:
• Our methods for making successful projects seem to take the soul out of them. Our insistence on planning straight and narrow pathways into the future frustrates the most expert among us, yet we persist.
• But, project work requires us to integrate our puzzle pieces with the puzzle pieces of others, who are equally confused. Because of this, projects unavoidably transform us into blind men arrayed around an elephant and leave us struggling to comprehend an ungraspable whole.
• John Godfrey Saxe (the author of the poem) reminds u, 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.
• Leadership in the blind-men-and-elephant world requires integrating disparate perspectives, not enforcing a dominant one.
• Organizations operating under such pressures fragment along predictable lines. Where despotism prevails
o Us and them crowd out we
o Rules disqualify individual judgment
o Public secrets and private subversions proliferate
o The truth becomes unspeakable.
• Without an explicit purpose, project work tends to sift from raging enthusiasm into utter meaningless.
• One of the most powerful roles is the Witness. The Witness observes and shares what she sees…witness meanings, not events.
• Cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster characterized a healthy human system as one that reveres variety over similarity, choice over command. He proposed an ethical imperative, “Act always so as to increase the number of choices.”
• Organizations insisting upon specific implementation alternatives create such inescapable contradictions for both their good and bad soldiers. If that system could have relaxed any one of its many rules, its intent could have been satisfied.
• As I learned when wrestling with the draft boards’ unyielding requirements, holding rigidly to a single implementation alternative effectively prevents anything from being accomplished.
• Their tactical ferocity blinded them to a larger objective: winning the tournament.
• I want you to understand that competition is a neurosis, and if you don’t learn how to get over it, it will kill you, and this firm along with you.
• If I join the competition, we both lose.
• Sometimes we have to rely on the contract to come to closure. Mostly, though, the covenant we forge in the dialogue before we ever draft the contract rules the engagement.
• …project team has to be involved in creating this plan or they’ll never buy into it…if you lose their hearts, their heads will never follow.
• Until a project discovers some central organizing principle, community effort seems unprincipled. … If you are not involved in the organizing, you will never fully comprehend the intended organizing principle.
• The most orderly organizations are more often evidence of a strong hand, if not an iron fist, on the team.
• Teams … rarely redesign their original organization, no matter how poorly suited that order becomes when integrating the new shapes.
• The most poorly adapted final organizations have been the products of teams that tenaciously defended their original organizing principle, no matter what. Said another way, organizing requires unlearning, which first feels disorganizing. Adapting requires letting go.
• How might your project help her (the person you are trying to motivate) achieve what she finds personally attractive?
• Breaking down barriers might remind us why we built the barriers in the first place.
• “If only they would open their eyes to see it from my perspective” these people seem to say. For these groups, the blindness remains localized and is assumed to be fixable. This apparent localization distracts the problem solvers, enticing them to solve the obvious problem, which rarely turns out to be the defining issue at all.
• Beginnings tend toward incoherence; change initiates chaos. With practice, though, coherence can tie together our common experiences, especially those that start messy.
• [Projects succeed when you build community.]
• People create a common rhythm together, not unmanageable chaos. Project an alluring future, and people cohere.