The 18th Camel: Stakeholders Decide Project Success

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William Ury in his book “Getting to Yes” tells the story of a man in the Middle East who, upon his death,  left to his 3 sons 17 camels.  To the first son he left half the camels, to the second son he left a third of the camels, and to the youngest son he left a ninth of the camels.  The three sons immediately got into a lengthy and animated discussion because 17 does not easily divide by 2.  It also doesn’t divide by 3, nor does it divide by 9.  The discussion began to get somewhat heated.  So finally in desperation, the brothers consulted with a wise old woman.

The wise old woman thought about their problem for a long time and finally came back and said to the brothers,  “Well, I don’t know if I can help you.  But at least, if you want, you can have one of my camels.”  So they had 18 camels.

The first son took his half; half of 18 is 9.  The second son took his third; a third of 18 is 6.  And the youngest son took his ninth; a ninth of 18 is 2.  They had divided amongst themselves 17 camels.  They ended up with one camel left over.  So they gave it back to the wise old woman.

It’s interesting how much this story resembles many of the difficult negotiations that occur between stakeholders on projects.  Sometimes working on a project can seem like working on the unsolvable problem of dividing 17 camels.  Somehow what we need to do is step back from the situation like the wise old woman.  Look at the situation through fresh eyes and come up with an 18th camel.

One of the clients that I’ve worked with, and learned from, for many years is a large health care organization that has a unique organizational perspective.  It is that any project of a certain scope or larger is required to have an employee with less than six months as a project team member.   In other words, the really big important projects require the fresh eyes of a new hire (much like the fresh eyes of the wise old woman).   In my experience the opposite is usually the norm in organizations.  The most important projects require the most senior and “experienced” people.  This client, on the other hand, has embraced the unique, and I think more accurate, perspective that really important projects require team members that can think “outside the box”, which often comes with not knowing how things are “supposed” to be done.  It often takes a diverse group of people to complete a project that doesn’t just meet the deliverable, but is truly successful.

Dave Kelly, the CEO of the innovative Silicon Valley product development company IDEO, even goes so far as to say that “in a very innovative culture you can’t have the kind of hierarchy that says here’s the boss and the next person down, and the next person down, and the next person down, and so on.  Because it’s impossible that the boss is always the one that’s had the insightful experience!  You have to hire people that don’t listen to you.”

Or, I would say, if that’s not possible, to at least be willing to listen to people with a fresh set of ears and attempt to view problems with a fresh set of eyes.  A project deliverable is not the same as project success.  And who determines success?  A diverse group of stakeholders.

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