Elephant and the Blind Men Article header

All too often, a major stumbling block to successfully innovating is the inability to both suspend judgment and educate beyond individual perspectives. Organizations are typically set up according to expertise: Finance, Operations, Legal, Human Resources, Information Technology, Marketing and Design. Once hired into a specific functional area, it’s typical to be evaluated and promoted based on your functional expertise. This method works well for organizations whose main priority is to stabilize processes in order to eliminate variance in their products and services. Doing things exactly same way every time while uncovering new efficiencies in the existing systems is the goal, and it works. However, when barriers to entry fall and it’s time to really innovate or go the way of the Dodo, these traditionally set up organizations are hit with a one-two punch: their employees are not trained to innovate and, in fact, have been unintentionally trained not to innovate. When the functional experts are brought together to innovate or perish, they lack the ability to see the inherit limitations of their highly specialized perspective. In short order, conflict and ego take over and the dialogue is stunted, leaving little chance of success. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this challenge is through the old Indian fable of The Blind Men and an Elephant.

The story goes that a group of blind men touch an elephant in order to describe what it is. Each man feels a different part of the elephant such as the trunk, tail, tusk or flank. When they begin to share what they’ve learned, they begin to fight and find themselves in complete disagreement. Frustrated and lacking alternatives they decide to listen to each other one by one and collaborate to see the full elephant. When a sighted man walks by and sees the entire elephant all at once, the men also learn that they are all blind. The moral of the parable is that while one’s subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth. If the sighted man were deaf, he wouldn’t hear the elephant trumpeting.

At AfterViolet we believe that listening attentively and curiously to others is required for businesses to successfully innovate. To that end, “The Dialogue” is the first step of our seven step innovation process. We challenge our clients to take turns listening to each other without judgment. We ask that they question each other to learn deeply about their respective ideas. Unless we have a quality of dialogue that brings the cumulative knowledge to light, we’ll never see the elephant. As the parable teaches us, only the group mind of blind men can see.