The Virtue of Not Seeing The Reposing Camel

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Modelling Business Decisions and their Consequences

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I didn’t care much for my fifth grade teacher. She could distribute the standardized material as well as anybody, I suppose, but when she came up with her own materials and tests, well, let’s just say she introduced a high degree of variability. This was perhaps nowhere more apparent than the astronomy module of the science class.

Like every fifth grader, we were expected to memorize specific stars, the major constellations, and their locations at each of the equinoxes. Now, when I look up into a cloudless night sky, I see stars and planets, just like everyone else. What I did not see were those lines between the stars that made up the constellations. I can’t see them to this day, but there they were, in all of the hand-drawn study materials we had to ingest to survive the quizzes and exams. So, at this point we weren’t so much learning about the nature of astrophysics as much as we were being taught the patterns that some ancient stargazer superimposed upon what he saw when he looked up into the night sky. Keep in mind that those interconnecting lines do not actually exist; and, even if they did, they rarely assume the shape of the people, animals, or objects they supposedly represent. To expand on this level of ambiguity, this particular teacher would hand-draw (rather crudely) the constellations, but turn them over, or around, in order to make their identification on her dopey tests that much harder. Clearly a path to academic excellence if ever there was.

Consider the following graph:


These data points indicate the distance that the twelve brightest objects in Ursa Major are from Earth. They vary from 44 to 249 light-years. While these bright heavenly objects appear somewhat two-dimensionally in the sky, they are, in fact, quite far apart, which makes the practice of imagining lines between them – and the subsequent objects depicted – even more strange, at least to me.

Now, Ursa Major is translated as the “Great Bear.” However, other ancient cultures also had stargazers, who connected those dots a bit differently, hence its other names, “The Wagon,” or “The Plow” (or, for our Great Britain-dwelling cousins, “The Plough”). So, even among those who see those stars somewhat two-dimensionally there’s some degree of disagreement about exactly what creature or object is being represented. I mean, seriously, what kind of ink blot could be interpreted by three different people as looking like a bear, a plow, and a wagon? Given the additional three-dimensional data depicted above, I believe some other names would be more appropriate. Take another look at the graph. In Rorschach Test-fashion, what do you see? I think it could be any of the following:

  • A question mark lying on its back.
  • The Loch Ness Monster.
  • A camel in repose

…any of which are at least as representative as “Great Bear” is to the two-dimensional arrangement.

Meanwhile, back in the Project Management world…

How do we, as Project Managers, identify talent within our project teams? Is it not that the person under evaluation tends to interpret the data in front of them similar to the way we do, or has demonstrated a predilection for employing a similar technical approach to nominal PM problems? In other words, these people connect the dots the same way we do, leading us to conclude that they are “talented,” when, in fact, they may be doing little more than confirming our own biases and prejudices. And, once we have identified the “talented” members of our teams, do we not tend to place them in places of authority, where their judgements and decisions will often have more weight, or long-term impact to the success of the project team?

Don’t think that the members of the project team aren’t looking to assimilate such judgements as they become aware of them. The precise opposite of being open to any tactic that will help improve the odds of successful project completion, they are being rewarded for adapting attitudes and strategies that they learn from the Project Manager, in hopes of being so rewarded. In other words, even if they don’t see a great bear in the scattered points of light in the nighttime sky, they may say that they do in order to survive their equivalent of the fifth grade science examination.

In short, the truly talented members of your team may very well be the ones who refuse to see the camel in repose.




Posted on: January 15, 2018 09:41 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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I see a seriously ill burn down chart.

Tell me what you think, not what you think I want to hear.

Thanks for sharing, Michael - this is why it's so important to have a team with diverse skills and backgrounds as well as cultivating a culture of psychological safety so that team members don't feel threatened to call out a false assumption or bad decision.


Encouraging and valuing input from team makes them think harder in finding innovative ways to address issues and improve things. Team can become an asset in constructive contribution or a set of frustrated robots depending on the environment a project manager creates.

Michael, one of the secrets to effective listening requires the listener to ask, “What am I not hearing? What are they not saying?” When you show a high tolerance for ambiguity and ask clarifying questions, without jumping to conclusions, you will hear far more than the two-dimensional image described by the speaker. I try to recognize the “prophet in the wilderness” that sees something no one else recognizes. Shakespeare was right, “A rose by any other name…” It’s not what you call the ‘reposing camel’ that counts. What counts is what the PM can do to maximize the value of the (pardon the pun) insight!

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