Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Blind Men and the Elephant

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 chance 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 about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
- John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

This may well be the most insight piece ever written about project management and what it means to try and run a project. Each person working on a project has a different perspective. They are confident in their perspective because they have personally lived it. They are suspicious of other people's perspectives, because in large ways or small ways, someone's experience is different from theirs.

How can one align all these different perspectives, identify an end point that one keeps moving toward, learn what everyone is experiencing and avoid being pulled onto meaningless paths which may look promising at first but don't lead to a constructive conclusion?

Remember that running a project is a little like running a hundred yard dash, except for one small difference. After you start running, someone fires a bullet at your head. If you cross the finish line before the bullet reaches your head, you're fine. If the bullet reaches you before you reach the finish line, well, that's not so good.

That is the demand of project management and alignment. Aligning people in the face of ambiguity and getting them to all work together to cross the finish line before the bullet reaches your head.

The world of the project manager.

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