Think Outside the Camel

Sometimes you have to think outside the camel.

At a recent management offsite, I adopted the phrase “Think different, act different” as a rallying cry for the team. I was trying to emphasize the dangers of group think so I reminded them of the story of ten monkeys in the cage. I didn’t just want them to think outside the box but to band together to institutionalize change management.

While having change as a shared goal provides a kind of support group, it doesn’t absolve individual responsibility and accountability. Later that week, I heard a fable which provides a vivid reminder that one person can change a group’s perspective:

A father left seventeen camels to his three sons. He stipulated that his eldest son should get half, the middle son should get a third, and a ninth to his youngest. Because seventeen doesn’t divided evenly, the sons could not think of a way to carry out their father’s wishes and decided to seek help.

The sons approached a wise old woman who, after pondering their problem, asked “what happens if you take my camel?” Of course, the addition of another camel made the solution obvious: the eldest son took nine (1/2), the middle son took six (1/3) and the youngest took two (1/9). Nine and six and two made seventeen. They had one camel left over which they gave back to the wise woman.

What I like about this fable is that the woman didn’t explicitly solve the problem for the sons. She allowed the group to discover the solution and implement it on their own.

This is an excellent reminder for all of us who try to solve problems for others. Don’t just think different, act different.

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9 Responses to Think Outside the Camel

  1. Robert E February 15, 2011 at 6:09 am #

    Another thing about this is how the sons got hung up on the NUMBERS not working. The wise old woman, focused on the ultimate GOAL, was able to find a solution.

    • Jonathan February 15, 2011 at 7:42 am #

      Great point Robert. It’s a common mistake to focus on the metrics and forget the objective.

  2. Jeff Winter February 22, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    Reminds me of the difference between managing and coaching. Taking a management approach, one might be tempted to try and tactically solve the problem for their team / people. Coaching takes an approach closer to that of the wise old woman, enabling people to get the answer, without explicitly providing it.

    • Jonathan February 22, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

      I like the distinction between managing and coaching, although I’ll repeat something I’ve thought about leaders:

      All managers should be coaches but not all coaches need to be managers.

      Do people agree with that?

  3. Timo Elliott March 1, 2011 at 11:11 pm #

    What really would have happened: they would have argued about which camels where the most valuable, sold them all, divided up the proceeds according to the will, and the amount left over would have gone on transaction costs and the old woman’s consulting fees…

  4. Tim D. March 30, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    In America, we would have let the brothers borrow 19 camels making 36 total, split 18 / 12 / 4 and leaving 2 left over as first quarter’s payment on the loan of 19 camels. Then the next quarter defaulted on the loan with the government buying 17 camels to make up the debt, and any thought of taxing the brothers to cover the bailout would be killed by filibuster.

  5. Andrew Slipper March 16, 2012 at 7:08 am #

    I think the younger son would have sued for his fair share. He had 3 x less than the middle son and more than 4x less than the eldest. In a lot of countries he would have a strong case.

    I liked the the thought process though in changing the frame of the problem.


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