The Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering Project Work [NOOK Book]


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 ...
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The Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering Project Work

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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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Editorial Reviews

Soundview Executive Book Summaries
In The Blind Men and the Elephant, teamwork consultant David Schmaltz uses real-world stories and expert advice to describe how managers can overcome the inevitable difficulties of project work. Poor planning, weak leadership, and fickle customers are no longer valid excuses for failed team projects. Schmaltz provides a set of simple, project-coherence-building techniques that any team can use to achieve success.© 2003 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

From the Publisher
"Don't start your next project till you've read it."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781609943219
  • Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/13/2003
  • Series: 0
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 144
  • File size: 783 KB

Read an Excerpt


Mastering Project Work

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 David A. Schmaltz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-253-1

Chapter One



    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 about an Elephant
    Not one of them has seen!

—John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887)


A revolution in project work has exploded over the last decade. Companies now create products in radically different ways than before. Instead of dedicated teams mustered to achieve reasonable goals, cross-functional, highly technical, fast-time-to-market–driven teams are common. Product requirements have shifted away from a definite set toward an indefinable one. Not surprisingly, product-development teams now disappoint more often than they deliver. Many more projects fail to satisfy their sponsors' expectations than ever satisfy them.

Most project traditions persist in spite of these fundamental changes. Most companies expect project managers to control these projects the way they controlled simpler projects in the past.

? Management lays fixed track, expecting everyone to get on it and stay on it, or get back on it should they stray.

? Funding authorities cling to traditional success criteria, expecting "on-time, on-budget, on-spec" performance, in spite of this shifting context.

? Auditors continue to expect detailed plans early in projects, even though both auditors and project managers know they will be shocked by the magnitude of the changes in them over time.

? Managers still gauge progress by inches, expecting their team members to explain every deviation from the plotted course.

I speak with a certain client every few months. He's spearheading his organization's process-improvement effort. He reports his shortcomings each time we chat. His original plan targeted a broad set of changes. A few months later, his results forced him to reduce the scope. His fallback plan called for heavy customer involvement, which the customers couldn't deliver. He's frustrated with his obvious lack of progress. Every time we talk, he reports that he's working longer hours. "This place just doesn't get it," he says. "The status quo seems to be winning."

He has finally accomplished a significant toehold toward his objective, but he expected to be at the top of the cliff by now. Rather than celebrating his significant breakthroughs, he punishes himself and those around him for an obvious "lack of progress." Of course the breakthroughs don't seem very significant when compared with what the original plan said was supposed to happen.

Some authors call these projects "wicked." I think this term misses the point. James Thurber told the story of his Civil War–veteran grandfather's relationship with the automobile. His grandpa thought of his car as just another sort of horse, and a particularly stupid and unmanageable horse at that. He never learned that the automobile would not turn when told to and that cars need different guidance techniques from what horses need. He died blaming the stupid car for his accidents. Calling these projects "wicked" duplicates Grandpa Thurber's error. Approach them inappropriately and they instantly become wicked.

I prefer the term fuzzy. "Wicked" sounds as if our automobile has something against us. "Fuzzy" sounds indistinct without suggesting any evil motive. Like Grandpa Thurber with his Hupmobile, we turn our otherwise innocently fuzzy projects into wicked ones. Our traditions, like Grandpa Thurber's, seem the source of what we experience as wicked:

? We create maps without surveying the territory.

? We follow these maps as if they were based upon knowledge rather than belief.

? We oblige others to follow these imaginary maps, as if following imaginary maps were reasonable.

? We promise rewards if targets are reached, as if any individual controlled the imaginary maps' accuracy.

? We threaten to punish those who miss targets, as if missing targets meant that someone had a personal problem or a professional shortcoming.

Our promises and threats justify a remarkable variety of inhuman acts:

? Requiring "voluntary" sacrifices as if they demonstrate sincere commitment.

? Demanding obedience as if that demonstrates dedication.

? Suspecting others as if that demonstrates prudence.

? Coercing as if that could encourage people to work together.

? Punishing as if that motivates.

? "Holding feet to the fire" as if that would entice action.

Misery results from these tactics more often than does project success. Until I started working in Silicon Valley, I had never met anyone making a quarter of a million dollars a year who felt taken mean advantage of by his or her employer. I've met several there.

We create the wickedness we experience as "wicked projects." We do this by interpreting our experiences in ways that not only undermine our success but guarantee meaninglessness. This simple acknowledgment transforms these experiences. I am never a powerless victim unless I abrogate my authority as the author of my own meaningless experiences. I have a guaranteed never-ending search for resolution as long as I believe that this wickedness originates somewhere else. Acknowledging myself as the source gives me the power to master these difficult experiences.

But mastering means losing some of the notions that helped me feel so powerful in the past. My convictions crumble as I accept that I cannot plan predictively enough to keep myself or anyone else safe from encountering unsettling information along the way. I can be confident only that our project will not turn out as planned. Incompetence no longer explains missed obligations, nor can I guarantee success by promising juicy payoffs. My certainties have to crumble, too. I cannot manage my project as if it were a manufacturing process. Deviations aren't necessarily bad. They can signal more meaningful success.

Our projects have shifted into a world where

? Personal sacrifice won't repel failure.

? Obedience can't attract success.

? Failure doesn't mean that anyone was untrustworthy.

? Coercion compromises capabilities.

? Punishments and enticements don't motivate.

If this shift seems scary to you, welcome to the club. It seems scary to me, too. I've concluded that shifting away from my confidence and my convictions should scare and confuse me. What experience could have prepared any of us for challenging our own certainties?


I recently read a blurb about a new project management book. It promised to teach me how to act in order to make my projects successful. I thought, "Is this theater?" Perhaps it is.

Within that book's frame of reference, the project manager is the playwright, the casting director, and the acting coach. The project manager creates the script for the project. Then he acts as casting director, assigning roles and responsibilities. Then, switching roles again, he coaches his cast into following his script. The acting-coach project manager has a tool kit filled with techniques for compelling others to deliver predictable performances. He coaches by reasoning, persuading, or, if someone insists upon being unreasonable and contrary, by coercing. He assesses performance by observing behavior.

I've had my behavior "managed," just as I've managed others' behavior. Did I really force people to behave? I suppose I did. I created a plan, a script of obligations; then I held each actor's feet to the fire. Under these conditions, their contributions had all the juiciness of a mortgage payment. Each contribution became an obligation, when it could have been so much more. Why did I work so hard to create such mediocre results?

Most project managers bring this acting-coach frame of reference to their fuzzy projects. We might prefer something other than coercion, but what can replace this crumbling body of knowledge we call "project management"? Must we continue yelling at the steering wheel like Thurber's grandfather, unaware that we are the ones confusing ourselves when it doesn't respond?


Do we have to be in the behavior modification business to successfully manage projects? I have a devil of a time planning a project if I cannot predict how anyone will behave when working on it. I simplify planning if I can at least assume predictability. I can track and control more easily if everyone stays within my prescribed boundaries. But the fuzziness, the indistinctness, makes such predictions unlikely.

Methodologies attempt to shave this fuzziness from fuzzy projects by offering templates designed to make the indistinct more definite. Most work-breakdown structures must have been designed by the compulsive progeny of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the self-proclaimed father of scientific management. Taylor believed that each manager was the benevolent father of his workers; that the manager's proper role was to allocate work according to skills and to assign workers as required by the work, while limiting the opportunities for what Taylor called "soldiering"—what we might call "unplanned interaction." What passed for science when Taylor claimed his fatherhood doesn't pass for science anymore. Science advanced a century while Taylor and his now-pseudoscientific followers stood still.

Much of what we call "project management" stands upon Taylor's flat-earth perspectives. When applied to repeatable manufacturing situations, his primitive notions have great utility. The same ideas fall apart when applied in more human, less mechanical contexts. Success requires something other than simply shaving a project's fuzziness. Our well-intended barbering leaves us bound with unanswerable questions. We might want efficient projects, but how do we improve the efficiency of a single-instance project when efficiency can only be meaningfully considered as a function of many similar instances? We might want a good plan, but how can we create an effective script for a discovery when we cannot know at the start what we'll discover or how we'll discover it?

Our centuries-long struggle to predict our futures has come to this; innocent attempts to manage our futures create unmanageable ones, well-intended efforts to script the play undermine the purpose of the performance. Our directing guarantees mediocrity. We've filled our kit with tools we're much better off not using. Our traditions mislead us into using them anyway.

The unpredictability—the indistinctness of today's efforts—had better not be a problem, because this fuzziness has become an unavoidable feature of our present and future projects. Our projects' fuzziness ranks as no more (or less) of a problem than Grandpa Thurber's inability to tell his car to turn. Just like Grandpa Thurber's, our interpretations transform a benign feature into an unresolvable shortcoming. Grandpa Thurber's car was no more like a horse than our present projects are like past ones. It was as unreasonable for Grandpa Thurber to expect his car to behave like a horse as it is for us to expect ancient tactics to guide today's projects. Just like many project managers today, the old man created his own troubles by innocently overextending his frame of reference.

We each place our experiences inside such frames of reference, or frames. These frames subtly influence what we believe and how we behave. For instance, some people put driving a car into a "driving a race car" frame and so justify as appropriate a different set of behaviors from those of someone who puts driving into a "'chauffeur"' frame. We are usually unaware of these frames' influence on us. We might not even experience making a choice as we step into another one.

The word project can push me unawares into a playwright/ casting-director/acting-coach frame, in which I, as the project manager, automatically begin writing the script, selecting the cast, and coaching the performers. I'm both enabled and trapped by this frame. I'm enabled because a whole set of behaviors automatically kicks in whenever I employ this frame. I'm also trapped because another set of behaviors automatically evaporates. My choices are limited by whatever frame I choose (or whatever frame chooses me), so it's important that I choose appropriate frames. When I am unaware that I've chosen my frame, I am left, like Thurber's grandfather, missing opportunities to improve my own situation. I yell at a lot of steering wheels.

What frames might I choose for project work? Our traditions position my choices of reference frames along a continuum, ranging from authority to anarchy. As a project manager, I usually equated the degree of personal control with the likelihood of success, as if my participation guaranteed collective success. Can you hear Taylor's ghost rattling his compulsive chains?

There must be an infinite number of frames to choose from when considering project work. Some of the most popular project manager frames hold project managers to be

? Fathers, where they coach and punish

? Mothers, where they nurture and instruct

? Magicians, where they pull rabbits out of hats

? Zookeepers, where they keep the wild animals well fed in cages

? Priests, where they exhort and forgive

? Comedians, where they entertain

? Teachers, where they instruct and grade

? Lobbyists, where they influence the support of the powerful

? Sheep, where they follow others' orders

? Wolves, where they take advantage of sheep

? Omniscient beings, where they know and see all (or are supposed to)

? Village idiots, where they get it wrong no matter what they try to do

Each frame brings with it a set of frame-appropriate behaviors and a set of frame-inappropriate behaviors. What frame do you find yourself in when you participate in project work?

How would your present project be different if you looked at it from within a "projects are conversations between peers" frame? Such conversations are never scripted. The conversation's potential diminishes when one conversant controls the other's responses. Why even engage if you know how the conversation will turn out? How are conversations controlled? No one centrally controls them, yet anarchy does not usually define the outcome. Conversations are dances that literally find their own way, based upon the judgment and skill of the dancers. Skilled dancers' steps quite naturally integrate when the dancers hear the same music. Culture influences. Intent colors. No one decides how conversations conclude.


Excerpted from THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT by DAVID A. SCHMALTZ Copyright © 2003 by David A. Schmaltz. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Naive Beginnings ix
1 The Blind Men 1
"The Blind Men and the Elephant" 1
Challenging Our Certainty 3
Confusing Ourselves 6
Choosing More Appropriate Frames of Reference 6
A Different Set of Possibilities 11
2 The Elephant 15
An Elephant We Cannot See 15
Masters and Slaves 17
Fragmenting along Predictable Lines 18
Disclosing Our Delusion 20
Liberating Ourselves 22
"That Each by Observation Might Satisfy His Mind" 24
3 The Wall 27
Festina Lente--Hasten Slowly 27
Meeting My Wall (Again) 29
Discovering What I Want 35
Juiciness 38
"God Bless Me! but the Elephant Is Very Like a Wall!" 40
4 The Spear 43
The Tale of a Very Bad Soldier 43
Monitoring My Metaphors 51
"To Me 'Tis Mighty Clear, This Wonder of an Elephant Is Very Like a Spear!" 52
5 The Snake 57
Who's Here With You? 57
Trusting Snakes 58
Sorry Sort of Safety 60
Snake Hunting 61
Tit for Tat 63
How Badly Do You Want Them to Win? 66
"I See," Quoth He, "the Elephant Is Very Like a Snake!" 68
6 The Tree 69
"101 Reasons Why I Can't Plan Yet" 69
"I Think That I Will Never See ..." 77
There's No Such Thing As a Project 78
Unavoidable Blind Spots 79
Imposing Disorganization 80
How Work Really Gets Done 83
Central Organizing Principle 85
"'Tis Clear Enough the Elephant Is Very Like a Tree!" 90
7 The Fan 93
No One Is Apathetic Except in Pursuit of Someone Else's Goal 93
Fanning the Flame or Stirring the Breeze? 95
Three-Part Conversation 98
Creating a Village Idiot 101
"Deny the Fact Who Can, This Marvel of an Elephant Is Very Like a Fan!" 105
8 The Rope 107
Will Rogers Was an Artist with a Rope 107
Sitting Comfortably 108
Just Like the Real World 110
Coherence Emerges 113
Encouraging Coherence 115
"I See," Quoth He, "the Elephant Is Very Like a Rope!" 121
9 Theologic Wars 123
A Heretic's Homecoming 123
"And Prate about an Elephant Not One of Them Has Seen!" 126
Bibliography 131
Index 137
About the Author 141
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2003

    A critical, and often overlooked, human dimension of project work

    This quick, well-written, and thought provoking book addresses the human dimension of project work too often lost behind GANTT charts, change controls, and scheduling tools. Schmaltz serves up uncomfortable realities about the world of project work. By confronting us with our Master/Slave frame of reference, he helps us understand how we unwittingly enslave ourselves to our Masters and how we can free ourselves with no one else¿s permission. Schmaltz reveals what great project managers have known forever about making their projects really work well -- clarity of purpose and strength of relationship are essential, and the responsibility and power is in each individual¿s hands. As he says in the preface, if you want a book to tell you what to do and how to make your projects turn out perfectly, take a pass. If you want a book with a bulleted list of how-to¿s, keep looking. If you are interested in shifting your perspective on your projects and learning how to approach them in a way that leaves you the master of your own experience, this book is for you.

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