engineer + builder + leader
Parable of the Elephant
August 23, 2023
Blind Men Appraising an Elephant by Ohara Donshu (大原呑舟), early 19th century, Brooklyn Museum (Public Domain)

I’ve always loved the Parable of the Elephant. If you’re not familiar, my retelling:

Having heard of a strange new creature - the elephant - three people are led into a darkened room with the elephant in the center. Each blindly gropes at a particular portion of the elephant’s form, and after they’re led back into the light, they discuss the best type of enclosure for the elephant.

The first, who felt the trunk-like legs of the elpehant says “We must find a wide-open meadow with good earth so that it can continue to grow.”

The second, who had felt the snake-like trunk replies, “No, we must keep it in a finely-wrought cage so that it cannot wriggle itself free through any hole.”

And the third, who touched the elephant’s tusk: “Wherever we may keep it, it must be padded, or surely the elephant will spear whatever is nearby.”

Which of them is right? All of them are both right and not right at the same time - they can deeply understand some aspect of the elephant, while having an incomplete picture of the overall shape, and thus the correct solution to the problem. Instead, they need to pool their knowledge with the trust that each has an accurate understanding from their own vantage point, and work together to form a more complete picture of the elephant.

So too with problems faced by teams. We are all groping at some aspect based on the unique perspective we come to a problem with. To give ourselves the best chance at crafting a great solution, we want to pool our viewpoints together to ensure we understand the problem as completely as possible.