David McClintock writes "In David A. Schmaltz's new book, The Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering Project Work, we find a powerful metaphor for the collaborative work involved in software or systems development. The metaphor is simple -- like the book title, it comes from John Godfrey Saxe's famous poem about the six blind men from Indostan. Simply put, Schmaltz is saying that your project is an invisible elephant. It's standing in a room, waiting to be revealed by a group of groping teammates." Read on for McClintock's review to see how well the analogy stands.
Each participant on a collaborative project encounters a piece of that project, rarely the whole elephant. We grasp whatever we can -- an ear, a tail, a trunk, a leg, a tusk, a broad, flat side. Based on what we grasp (our piece of the project) we extrapolate an understanding of the whole: a fan, a rope, a snake, a tree, a spear, a wall. Schmaltz develops these analogies in terms of project experience. We encounter a fan that brings us fresh air, a rope that binds us together, a snake that abuses our trust, a tree that evolves in structure above and beneath the surface, a spear that puts us on the defensive, a wall that challenges our personal progress. A chapter is devoted to each analogy.
This isn't a storybook, though. These simple metaphors are touchstones for Schmaltz's broad exploration of what makes projects meaningful. Schmaltz sheds light on the dark matter of project management -- the stuff that blocks us from succeeding on projects as individuals and as teams. He even leads us through the panicked self-talk that runs through a manager's head at the start of a project. With rich writing that's rare in management books, Schmaltz gives us a 360-degree view of project management itself -- project management is this book's invisible elephant. The elephant emerges.
You won't find any worksheets, diagrams, flow charts, procedures, instructions, or textbook problems in this book. Schmaltz gives us something more valuable and memorable: fresh ways to think about how we approach and manage projects. For example, managers should encourage each person to find a personal project within each project, something personally "juicy" to sustain interest and make the effort valuable. Going beyond the stated objectives of a project, each of us needs to ask ourself, "What do you want?" -- and to keep asking that until our personal goals emerge. These goals don't compete with the team's purpose -- they bind us to the project's success. This is the process of what Schmaltz calls "finding your wall."
Just as managers should encourage this kind of buy-in rather than try to externally motivate a team, managers should not impose a prefabricated structure onto a team. Schmaltz argues that when people find a personally juicy goal within a project, they will strive to organize their efforts in an efficient, organic manner -- without taking that twenty-volume project methodology off the shelf.
On a person-to-person level, Schmaltz asserts that despite the risk of getting cheated by snake-like deceivers, project members are most wise to interpret people's actions generously, assuming the best and freely offering trust and help. Using the results of a computer programming competition in which the Prisoner's Dilemma was solved by having the imprisoned conspirators refuse to implicate each other, Schmaltz shows that offering trust as a first principle can lead to bigger win-wins, more often.
Schmaltz consults on high-tech projects through his firm, True North project guidance strategies, based in Walla Walla, Washington. He hosts the Heretic's Forum, a Web space designed to "capture dangerously sane ideas." In addition to his periodic newsletter, Compass, he has published one previous book, This Isn't a Cookbook.
That invisible elephant, the powerful analogy at the center of this book, will enrich the way you approach new projects and reconsider problems -- especially the parts of problems that remain invisible to you on current projects. As Schmaltz wishes in a sort of benediction, "May this elephant emerge whenever you engage."
Reviewer David McClintock is president of Wordsupply.com. You can purchase The Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering Project Work from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.