Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Blind Men and the Elephant - A Business Application

In a breakfast meeting this past week, I was listening to a friend tell about his frustration in trying to get a prospective client to understand a complex solution that his company offers for solving document management and business process challenges. Depending upon the functional role of the person hearing the presentation, they would often only understand from their limited frame of reference a small portion of the what the solution could offer. I said: "It sounds like the fable of the Blind Men and The Elephant." My friend asked me to remind him of the story. I did so, and then when I returned to the office, I was prompted to Google the story to make sure I had all the details correct. I found the following version of the fable that I want to share:

American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) based the following poem on a fable which was told in India many years ago.

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 and 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!

In a complex world, in which the whole is often more than the sum of its parts, how often do we fall into the trap of thinking that we have discerned the whole elephant? The ramifications are far ranging. In communicating with colleagues, clients, customers, do you take the time to ensure that they have a broad enough picture that they can discern the whole elephant - or rhino! In responding to the needs of a prospective customer, do we assume that we understand the whole elephant when we may have only encountered and analyzed the trunk or the ear?

In thinking about this whole topic, I close with one of my grandmother's favorite expressions: "I see, said the blind man"!


1 comment:

Mark said...


Somehow I think you'll be able to finish what I'm about to write before I finish typing...

This reminds me of Tevya, mediating between 2 opponents in a heated argument.

After listening to the first one make his case, Tevya, stroking his beard, pronounces, "You know, you are right."

But then the second makes his case, to which Tevya replies, pointing his finger in the air, "You know, you are right!"

A confused onlooker jumps in, "Tevya, Tevya, you said this man is right. Then you said that man is right. Tevya, they can't both be right!"

To which Tevya responds, "You know what? You are also right!"