Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering Project Work

How to Transform Fuzzy Responsibilities into Meaningful Results

David Schmaltz

Berrett-Koehler, 2003


A Book Review by

Glen B. Alleman

September 1, 2003

Copyright © 2003


Summary and Brief Review

Schmaltz uses John Godfrey Saxe’s “The Blind Men and the Elephant” poem as a metaphor for managing projects. The title of the book suggests it is about mastering project work or transforming fuzzy responsibilities into meaningful results. It appears though to be a collection of essays of David Schmaltz’s travels from an 18 year old conscientious objector to his current position as a self proclaimed expert of the psychological aspects of project work – which interestingly is not based on any formal cultural or psychological processes other than his own experiences. In the end there are some suggestions for managing projects, but its tough to find the suggested title until near the end.

There is a well rounded bibliography though, so the source of a coherent theory is there were Schmaltz to connect his view of the world to these sources. The result though is a rambling set of ideas interconnected with the elephant metaphors. The book is sprinkled with some useful team and process building concepts that can be found in other sources, like John Kotter’s leadership books and Jim and Michele McCartney’s Software for Your Head, or Linda Risling’s upcoming Patterns for Organizational Development. Neither of which are referenced nor the are the other standard management, leadership, or process improvement books.

I use this possibly harsh description since this book has been billed by David as “important” to the discussion of Agile Project Management (APM), a topic in which I'm involved.  A brief summary of the ideas in the book might better be called “project management through psychotherapy.” As an aside, the publisher is focused on work and work place improvement books, so this book fits better in that domain than with the mechanics of project management. 

I had to push myself at times to finish the book, but the effort did payoff in no small part for the following ideas:

§         A project without purpose tends to shift from enthusiasm to meaningless. Although obvious to all who have participated in these projects, its worth restating. David’s solution though is to find a personal goal for the project rather than “fix” the missing project goal. Inverting the “satisfiers” is a continuing theme of the book. This may result in personal fulfillment but not necessarily project success – another continuing theme.

§         Members of a project team need to find a secondary purpose for their participation. This secondary purpose become Schmaltz’s primary purpose. This is a  continuation of the above and runs throughout the book – satisfy “me” and “the project has a chance of success.” Although vital for personal growth and development, it’s not clear that the project manager is wholly responsible for the personal satisfaction of the team members.

§         The command and control project management processes are many time not effective, as we all know from experience and the literature. But Schmaltz "rages against the machine" while failing to define where C&C “is” effective and where it isn’t. As well he fails to replace C&C with any formal method other than his suggestion for the PM to "seek personal satisfaction" within the project context, leaving the project owners and funders without a means of success. Every one for herself?

§         Various frameworks for managing projects are presented, some of which are appropriate, others seem to be “tilting at windmills,” in the same way critics of Byzantine business processes still found in some firms use examples from the 1970’s of the evils of modern management.

Overall I recommend this book, with the qualification that the reader recognize Schmaltz is basically anti-leadership, anti-team, rages against formal organizations, and expresses lots of personal philosophy with little acknowledgement of the current theory and practices of team based, leadership methods found in any modern business. In the end there actually is advice on managing projects and how to improve the project management process – despite the failure to fully achieve the promise of the subtitle. But I had to work my way through 118 pages before this comes out.  

Schmaltz considers himself a feral (def: existing in a wild or untamed state, having returned to an untamed state from domestication) practitioner in a world of professional project managers. That's an apt description of Schmaltz's view of managing projects using the theories in this book. You should buy this book, since it is $18.00, if only to experience a unique point of view in a world of pedestrian project management ideas. But in the end the subtitle is not fulfilled – there is no description of a method of how to transform fuzzy responsibilities into meaningful results for anyone other than the individual. No team, no project collective ownership, no organizational process for the good of the firm, just “me, myself, and I.”

More Detailed Review of Blind Men and the Elephant

The book starts by replacing the term “wicked” with “fuzzy,” hence the subtitle. This turns out to be a problem though, since “wicked project” characterization and solutions are well defined in the literature. The wicked phrase was coined in Rittel, H., and M. Webber; “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” pp 155-169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973.

Schmaltz does not provide the background needed to connect his core idea with “wicked” projects early enough in the book. What’s missing is the understanding that “wicked” projects emerge from inherent complexity. Terry Williams’ descriptions of structural and organizational complexity in Modelling Complex Projects (yes two l’s in British English) is a good starting point. Schmaltz gives us no such starting point for the problem other than his personal anecdotes.

Schmaltz continues with a “master slave” metaphor for project participants and the leaders of these projects. It seems he has never experienced John Kotter writings or the other modern leadership texts. If he had, and better yet, put them into practice, Schmaltz would realize that command and control management processes are not the way any modern organization manages. Schmaltz carries the “evils” of command and control to conjecture that projects are poorly served by the “... belief that leaders create meaning for their team, because they can at best only encourage some preconditions that might provoke an emerging coherence of shared meaning; acknowledging their own, personal blindness is the most prominent among these.” This psychobabble runs throughout the book.

Any competent manager “serves” her staff in a stewardship role while also providing a framework of guidance and support for meeting the needs of the higher organization – this is the basis of modern business leadership. A read of Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self–Interest, Peter Block, Berrett Koehler, 1996, (interestingly from the same publisher), John Kotter and Katzenbach would help in the understanding of modern management theory. Organizations that depend on command and control are measurably less effective in the presence of changing context and requirements, but it is difficult to see how “despots” are created by the application of command and control in the proper environment. 

Schmaltz does provide useful advice in the presence of command and control:

§         Purpose as an antidote to difficulty – this is a core concept and many times is used in the rhetoric of the surrounding text.

§         Generosity in the face of uncertainty – this is not explained in any detail.

§         Personal judgment to counteract meaninglessness – if in fact a PM is on a meaningless project, she should leave immediately and avoid all that follows in the book.

§         Patience to neutralize chaos – this is a powerful concept, one I try to convey to my staff. The process of improvement is long and many times arduous. Patience and the acceptance of incremental progress is critical to the long term success.

§         Acknowledging our own blindness to encourage coherence – this is Schmaltz’s code word for the leadership process not to adhere to a blind goal but to search for the path to success using all participants ideas, not just those from the top.

Chapter 3 presents the idea of a “wall,” (the body of the elephant). This wall can be understood as a project without an explicit purpose. I have no doubt such projects exist, but all the psychobabble is not necessary. “Chartering” of a project removes this ambiguity in the project’s purpose. Chartering is well understood and well documented in every project management process. Our own Project Delivery System introduction book has two chapters on chartering. PM’s proceeding without a well defined charter deserve what they get – a “wall” through which they must penetrate. Schmaltz states in this chapter the first of his personal experiences. He paints a conversation with a business mentor (Larry) that sets him on a path to enlightenment. A brief excursion into a discussion of cynics strikes home for me here as well. I work with some who make it their profession to be cynical about process improvement and the adaptation of new processes. But simply stating this would send a more powerful message.

Chapter 4 is a description of Schmaltz’s encounter with the selective service (the US draft board) process in the late sixties. Schmaltz uses anti-military examples such as Gallipoli and Antietam to explain the evils of adhering blindly to the commands from above. This generalization of the absurdity of war on the scale of a single battle has little to do with the managing projects on a daily basis. I have a concern here that Schmaltz has told us a “story” in his attempt to convey a concept. He spins a story around his encounters with the selective service administration and his quest for a conscientious objector classification in the late 1960’s after receiving his draft notice. I'm insensitive to his experience having served as a aviator in Vietnam, circa 1970.

More importantly Schmaltz portrays the military experience (without actually experiencing it) as one in which individual desires are subordinated to the needs of the larger organization – an “evil” in the eyes of his project management theory. Schmaltz fails to acknowledge that subordination of personal goals for the benefit of the team is a powerful concept used in any business venture as well as combat situations. Facing adversity as a team not only builds cohesion it also builds strength in individuals. I say these words from the experience of a naval aviator in Vietnam. I’m not convinced such a personal anecdote has a place in a project management book. Since it is here he sets a tone for further concepts – anti-hierarchy and anti-authority. This is too bad, since the question of how to participate on a project team where you’re not the leader, or the project doesn't meet your personal needs is never answered in any meaningful way.

Near the end of Chapter 4 Schmaltz perpetuates yet another myth, that “plans are immutable” (pg. 52). assuming that plans are immutable, is not only bad management, it is not even the advice provided by the most traditional of PM documents, PMI’s PMBOK. At this point I gave up on Chapter 4 and moved on.

Chapter 5 uses the metaphor of the “snake,” the trunk of the elephant. None of this made any sense to me, since all Schmaltz seems to be saying is that every interpersonal interaction needs to start with “trust.” Without this starting point the relationships usually go downhill rapidly. Restating the obvious if you ask me.

Chapter 6 uses the metaphor of the “tree”, the leg of the elephant. The issues with planning are presented. Schmaltz tells us of his angst with a project he’s been assigned. He describes a series of difficulties. Low power workstation, previous release of PM software, missing training, etc. All this seems contrived for a professional project manager to be dealing with late into the night. This mythical project that has never been planned before has somehow outstripped David’s skills. His claim that R&D can’t be planned is simply not true. MIT Sloan has a seminar he might attend to see how its done. In fact it’s done everyday in 100’s of R&D firms. At this point in David’s emergence as a PM, he should have turned to a good research library to find the methods used in pharmaceutical, semiconductor, image detector, petrochemical, and a large variety of consumer goods companies for managing R&D projects. This is the beginning of what seems to be a “story telling” phase of the book. Where David paints a picture as a neurotic project manager, ill equipped to deal with the task at hand. The picture he paints is an interesting picture, but in the end David never seems to provide the solution to this contrived situation.

On page 75 David describes a myth that a PM is a self confident person. He claims this is sometimes true. I’d conjecture it is always true in some sense, for without the confidence to move forward, no PM will be able to discover what is really needed to complete the project successfully. David says, “I tell my self there are always 100 & 1 reasons why I can’t plan my project yet...,” is simply not genuine for any professional project manager. Planning is a continuous process, not an event. On the next page David states “Project organizations are hierarchies that seem to branch only down from a central point.” David must have never experienced a matrixed organization in his travels.

Matrixed based functional sharing, based on self directed teams, or even teams of teams is common in today manufacturing, software development, and service industries. Analogies and metaphors follow to explain the underpinnings of the project organization. All this indirect analog is simply confusing to me – why not just provide straight forward descriptions of project management processes? This section also descends  into an analogy that claims there is “no such thing as a project,” since those participating in the project cannot see themselves doing so. Very Douglas Hofstadter, with self referencing systems and navel gazing. David would be well served to read about the 360 degree review process found in most modern organizations, which breaks the cycle of self examination and puts a spot light on oneself and those observing self.

Finally page 80 makes the conjecture that a business organization “... will insist upon your project’s disorganization. It will accomplish this by imposing an inappropriate organization on the project.” There is no basis for this suggestion. In fact there is no evidence for most of Schmaltz’s conjectures. He provides examples from manufacturing, insurance, and banks. There are no references from field case studies or academic literature (MIS Journal, CACM, HBR, etc.)

This is troubling in a broader sense, since it is becoming clear that this book is a treatise derived from David’s personal experience, with little connection to the broader context of research literature and case study documents. No doubt David’s experiences are his for the telling, but at this points they are simply anecdotes of an inexperienced project participant. No doubt there are bad decisions being made in corporations – I’ve experienced them as well. But like all the other chapters, this one ends with no recommendations as to what to do about the problem.

Chapter 7 uses the metaphor of the elephant’s ear as a fan. The chapter opens with David claiming, “The energy expended trying to motivate others creates despotic results. Trying to motivate is a form of bribery. Bribery robs everyone involved…” No underlying basis for this concept is given – just opinion.  The next conjecture is “A leader's role cannot be to motivate his community members … because projects work best when each community member decides to use her project assignment for pursuing her own alluring goal.”

It seems to be Schmaltz has it backwards. Is the project to subordinate its goals to those of its participants? This approach to “management by disorganizing”  is unprecedented in management theory or project management. nothing resonated for me here, so I moved on.

Chapter 8 is based on the elephants tail seen as a rope. The search for “coherence” (which is never really defined in any independent terminology)  Schmaltz claims that “… participants' communication becomes a search to be understood rather than on seeking common understanding.” Seems David never read Stephen Covey’s for the basic idea “seek first to understand…”

Finally some specific “factors” are provided for cohesive communities. Each factor is described in detail. Valuable details of creating and sustaining these factors are provided. This section pp. 115-121 is the core of the book, and should be placed in the front, skipping all the “drama.”

Chapter 9 provides insight into Schmaltz’s character. He considers himself a feral practitioner in a world of professional project managers (PMI certified). That about sums it up for managing projects using David’s theories.

Final Recommendation

I rarely recommend someone "not" buy a book, since there is almost always something of value, so buy this book. This book has several important concepts if your willing to wade through all the “dramatic” narrative surrounding the simple but timeless concepts found in many other sources. It finally dawned on me that the book reads like a series of essays built around the elephant metaphor. This should have been obvious, but I was looking for something else - how to master project work and how to transform fuzziness into results. Many authors use the mechanism of metaphor and many times it works. Here it doesn’t work as well. In the end the subtitle of the book is not fulfilled - at least for me.

Glen B. Alleman

Niwot, Colorado

September 2003