The Blind Men and The Elephant

By: David Matz

An attorney with whom I had worked called. He represented a doctors’ practice group that was in conflict with both a hospital and a medical school. Was I interested in being interviewed to see if I could help? Sure.

I showed up and found someone waiting ahead of me, someone I did not know. He was there for the same purpose. He was an accountant. Nothing to do with conflict. Someone walked out of the interview room. I didn’t know her either, but I asked about her field and she said organizational development. Interesting.

In my interview I asked the committee how they had such disparate candidates (they had also interviewed a specialist in medical administration). “Each of us saw the problem differently so we gave each of us one candidate to nominate.” I asked that they explain the situation and it became clear that each problem definition made excellent sense.

I asked each committee member to describe how his/her point of view fit, or did not fit, with the other points of view on the committee. The discussion went on for about 20 minutes, and just as one member went to the board to sketch a work plan for the committee, another member interrupted to ask: “Very interesting. But what do you do?” “That’s it,” I said. “If you like it, lets discuss business. How would you like to proceed?”

I got the job, and later helped them integrate an accountant and a leadership specialist into the process.

Two lessons:

  • Organizational issues are often open to many accurate and useful definitions. How to choose among them can be serendipitous (I was the last candidate they interviewed), though occasionally there is a logic of priority. In this case the accounting problem (was someone not transparent about the money available?) was very loaded; it had to be addressed, but not first.

  • Even organizationally sophisticated players can have difficulty figuring out what mediation-types do in organizationally complex situations. Demonstration is the best tool.

It might remind you of the 19th century parable of the blind men and the elephant. A popular version is the poem by Godfrey Saxe, which can be found here.

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