Teaching the Elephant to Dance

Need an informal way to convince your coworkers that your organization could benefit from performance management?  That the principles of managing by walking around could improve your organization’s alignment?    Here’s a poem that was written more than 150 years ago that might help:

 

The Blind Men and The Elephant
John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

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!

Moral
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 very real sense, each of us is like one of the blind men experiencing the organizational elephant from our own point of view.  We do our best to understand our function, our group, or our business unit but we almost never know how what we do fits into the overall organization and thus how we impact others.  With our blindfolds firmly in place, we often unintentionally hurt overall performance while making decisions that optimize our portion of the elephant.

 

The goal of performance management isn’t just to remove the blindfolds so we can finally see entire beast but also to make sure everyone understands how they fit into the coordinated whole. Imagine, for a moment, if everyone in your organization was aligned so that they were pulling in the same direction. The elephant would be as nimble as a ballerina.

 

One Response to Teaching the Elephant to Dance

  1. Robert E says:

    Oedipus, at least, blinded himself over the agony and the guilt of the choices he had unwittingly made. Many managers and executives also blind themselves to everything but: their own department, their own numbers, their own ambition. Giving “sight” to these blind men is a constant business challenge. And, of course, like they say at Alcoholics Anonymous, YOU have to admit YOU have a problem before anything can be done to correct it. Remember, in the business world, there is a lot to be said for looking out for number 1.
    How do you get people to see more of the elephant? Two additional challenges of power and accountability come into play. Information is power and sure way of feathering your own power nest is to withhold information. Yes, there are sensitive areas where access has to be controlled. All too often, this is exploited for alterior motives. Can you say weapons of mass destruction?
    How can you get people more comfortable with communicating? Even more difficult is how do you act upon communications? I am sure that GM has been told from many quarters, in many ways, and over a long period of time that their cars need to be higher quality. As they continue to lose market share because they don’t seem to be making the cars people want to buy, is it they haven’t heard or that they don’t know what to do with that information?
    Accountability, often used as a synonym for punishment, means that managers, and even individual contributors don’t want anyone see their elephant and are doing what they can to only direct attention to parts they want them to see. A consultant I was speaking with summed up this in her comment that the higher you get in the organization’s structure the harder it is to receive good feedback. Too many are trying to give you what they think you want to hear, or conceal things they would rather not have you hear about. What kind of decisions can be made with that kind of atmosphere?
    So the blind men are only feeling parts, and those that can see are either pointing attention to particular parts or holding screens in front of others. How do you get a crew like that to work together? A true challenge for performance management is the disparity between the status-quo of all-about-me and the ideal business models found in academic circles.

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