The story below, or one of its many variations, is told at many management meetings:
All of the men of the region that were born blind were gathered in one place and an elephant was brought out. Each man felt a different part of the elephant—the head, the feet, the ears, the trunk etc. When they were asked, what sort a thing is an elephant, each had his own response; the tail–a brush; the leg–a pillar, the ear– a winnowing basket and so on. An argument developed within the group and no agreement could be reached.
The management lesson that is often emphasized is that no one individual has a grasp of the entire picture. Each person has a piece that must be brought together to have an accurate understanding of the situation. The point that is stressed is the importance of working as a group and communicating effectively. The lesson is interesting and effective the first time. However, the repetition of message becomes a cliché and the interest is lost.
I recently came across this story again in a Buddhist Commentary. The original story and the commentary took the lesson in a different direction than the management consultants:
This story often appears in the Buddhist canon as a parable told by the Buddha. It was told in response to a question concerning scholars arguing about the nature of man and religion. The story follows the same scenario, and has a verse with these two lines describing the blind men:
For quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folks see only one side of a thing.
Two lines from the Commentary indicate a direction:
“If you want to do right, just avoid groping over the elephant: do not say perceptive awareness is it, yet do not say that it is not it.”
The blindness is one of obstructed perception. All of the folks are making the same error, even if their specific reports are different. Bringing all of the people together to fit the elephant together in simply leads to a composite, agreed by consensus, but that picture still contains the errors and distortions inherent in the faulty perception. Although, there may be agreement, it cannot reflect the actual situation if the perceptions are incorrect. Communication and working together are not the central issue. An appropriate, clear experience or understanding of the situation is the essential point.
A manager is often asked to put the pieces of a situation together, based on skill and experience. Managers can become adroit at figuring out the big picture. In fact, looking throughout the organization, it is obvious that individuals can succeed on this skill quite well. Yet, the picture is likely to incorporate errors of perception of groping the situation, favoring a known view and seeing, as the verse states, only one side of a thing. Based on this original intent of the parable, the responsibility of the manager is to bring the insight to the situation so that it is addressed fully and appropriately. The power of the parable is the challenge to the individual find a way to develop that level of understanding.
Is a clear understanding necessary to function in the management position. Absolutely not. Some organizations essentially built on deception can continue in that mode for some time, and clarity may not be welcomed. Thus, the challenge is directly to each individual to accept or decline as time and conditions dictate.