The Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering Project Work

What can you do to keep a projects from becoming beastly experience for you and your team? What does it really take to make a project a resounding success? David Schmaltz reveals the answers in his new book The Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering Project Work.

Book Excerpt

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
ISBN 1-57675-253-4
Paperback Original, May 2003

The Blind Leading the Blind

You are blind because you believe you can see, not because you cannot see.

It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined
Who went to “see” the elephant, though all of them were blind.

So begins John Godfrey Saxe’s famous fable “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” in which six blind men attempt, and ultimately fail, to describe an elephant to each other’s satisfaction. The problem?

The first approached the elephant and happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side at once began to bawl,
“This wonder of an elephant is very like a wall.”

Another swears that the elephant is clearly like a spear, while another “boldly up and spake” that it is actually more like a snake! And so, each in turn describes the beast. But they can’t agree on whether the beast is really more like a wall, a snake, or a spear, so their innocent attempts to describe the animal together create not an elephant, but what Saxe calls a “theologic war.”

Though Saxe wrote his fable more than 100 years ago, his story remains as current as today’s headlines. The workplace sees plenty of such conflicts, where the blind certainty of narrow perspectives destroys any possibility for experiencing this elephant together.

These methods encourage the theologic wars that inevitably lead to failure, where each individual asserts the rightness of his own perspective, leaving everyone in the wrong.

The Elephant Hunt

It used to be that these beastly situations were derisively referred to as “the blind leading the blind,” and the traditional solution was to assign one of the blind men the authority to decide, as if he could somehow see the whole elephant. Such tactics create compliance, but never the juicy involvement projects demand.

This blindness is a continuing feature of work life today. Consider your last project. Didn’t it require the enthusiastic contribution of several different specialists, each unavoidably blind to all but his own perspective?

If your project succeeded, did the plan predict the path you ended up following? Chances are you succeeded by figuring out how to blindly lead each other to success—not by following some omniscient leader or predictive plan, but by somehow integrating the disparate perspectives of all of the “blind men.”

If you were fortunate and saw the elephant together, that integration produced the all-too-rare experience of being able to see the world through each other’s eyes. By the end of the effort, you might have even felt that your group could accomplish anything together. If you were not successful in achieving this integration, I’ll bet you got a taste of a theologic war, only to hope you’d never have to work with any of those idiots again.

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us!

I use Saxe’s old fable to explain a unique model for creating exceptional results with others. The outdated follow-the-leader model, with its emphasis on planning, tracking, and controlling, falls apart in a workplace in which the blind must lead the blind. The key to success now lies in knowing how to avoid the theologic wars that destroy every possibility for a mutually satisfying experience.

So, what is this elephant, anyway? I call it “coherence”—the ability of people to agree about their common experience. Coherence is the foundation of all the juicy experiences you’ve had in project work. When you finished, feeling as though you could accomplish anything together, it was because you found your elephant together, not because you blindly followed some all-seeing leader.

Some simple but counter-intuitive personal acts encourage the elephant to emerge. When you engage as if your perspective can see the whole elephant, you subtly undermine your ability to achieve coherence. But embracing your own inevitable blindness helps coherence to emerge.

What You Can Do to See the Elephant

1. Be clear about your own purpose for engaging.
When you sacrifice yourself for your project’s objective, you quietly undermine your own abilities to create a meaningful experience. Those who are clear about their own purpose are most capable of appreciating others’ purposes, too.

It seems that until you are selfish enough to know what you want, you’re never generous enough to help anyone else pursue what they want. So finding a juicy personal purpose for your participation is an essential element of any coherent experience.

2. Understand your intentions.
The methods you devise for achieving your goal will most certainly fail. Yet if you are clear about your intentions, you can benevolently undermine the system you put in place so it can work.

If you are unclear about your own intentions, you will follow blindly. Like a good soldier, you will pursue what you suspect won’t work and create your own misery in the process.

3. Extend your trust.
Extending your trust is the price of sitting at the same table. It is human nature for people to satisfy others’ expectations of them. If you treat others as untrustworthy, they quite naturally give you what you ask for.

How can others prove themselves trustworthy if you don’t first extend them your trust? The blind men’s theologic war thrived on their mutual distrust of their fellows’ curious stories.

4. Let go of how it’s supposed to be.
You waste a lot of time defining roles and responsibilities—cordoning others into defendable spaces—when projects thrive instead in a network of community.

Interact in surprising, indefinable ways to achieve the coherence your project requires. Staying in role merely imprisons your best, enthusiastic selves.

5. Stop trying to motivate others.
Help others find their project within the project instead, and motivation automatically takes care of itself. What better motivation than knowing that your assignment is the medium within which you are actively pursuing your own, juicy objective?

Even the most difficult work can be juicy when supported by this simple, often overlooked element. Help others find their own motivation while you attend to discovering yours.

6. Sit in the mess before tidying it up.
Too often you start your projects by organizing the effort, hoping to avoid that uncomfortable messiness that leaves you feeling as if you will never make any headway.

Do not insist upon a well-formed starting place. Sit comfortably in the mess so you can learn about its nature before trying to organize or “fix” it. This essential milling-around period allows order to emerge from the mess and marks the start of a coherent, collective effort.

Creating Elephants

Why haven’t project-management books talked about how to make this elephant appear? Without these simple, often overlooked elements, project work too easily degrades into the dead-end drudgery of theologic wars.

Those who know how to lead while acknowledging their own blindness create those magical experiences where, at the end, everyone wants to do another project like that again.

Saxe’s blind men were not encumbered by their blindness, but by their certainty that they could see when they could not. If you want to create the extraordinarily satisfying experiences that coherence brings to project work, consider learning how to embrace your own, and everyone else’s, inevitable blindness in the pursuit of your common objective.

David Schmaltz is a writer, teacher, and consultant with a quarter-century’s experience in the field. Founder of True North project guidance strategies, Inc., he shows individuals and organizations engaged in project work how to escape tradition’s cages to create more fulfilling project experiences. His book The Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering Project Work focuses on the practical considerations that make projects successful and personally meaningful. His Mastering Projects Workshop graduates are among the most innovative people working on projects today. He hunts elephants from a Victorian home on a tree-lined street in Walla Walla, Washington. Contact him at (

©2003 David A. Schmaltz, True North pgs, Inc. All rights reserved.

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