The Elephant Problem

0
61 views

Share on LinkedIn

Manage the numbers

We love to manage by targets and numbers.  We divide our organisations up and target managers with very specific goals:

And off we go, convinced that our number is the most important number, striving to make it go the right way.

But organisations aren’t numbers

I can’t define you by your shoe size, nor can I define an organisation by its net promoter score (though the consultants will tell you different).  Organisations are complex, interdependent systems.  No one number can possibly tell us the whole story.

In their book The Tiger That Isn’t, Dilnot and Blastland call this the elephant problem.  It is best described in the poem by John Godfrey Saxe

The Blind Men and the Elephant: A Hindoo Fable

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 ‘t is 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 and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is 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!

Or to put it another way

If you really want to understand how your organisation is working.  Don’t obsess about individual numbers and targets…

Stand back and look at the whole thing.

If you enjoyed this post click here for updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Elephant

Watch another opinion

Image by John Spooner

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here