How to Eat an Elephant

How to Eat an Elephant
by wwarby from

And close your eyes with holy dread,

What was it about the number ‘3’ that is so fascinating to poets like Samuel Coleridge in his famous opium induced poem, ‘Kubla Khan’?

I remember learning of a tribe in the highlands of Papua New Guinea whose language only had words for the numbers ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’, ‘many’ (which led to much fun when they described their kids and wives).

Maybe we do have some neurological limit of absorption and retention? (Maybe it is just the males of our species! – Ed)

I am an engineer and a project manager, not a neurologist. However I do believe that a similar vocabulary limit appears to have infected the brains of our own management consultants and even our project management gurus have not gone unaffected.

Many management consulting companies in the1990’s, religiously followed and delivered the mantra of 3’s. The world of business as we know it, no matter how complex, had to be reduced to 3 base concepts and then they could be subdivided into 3 again and on, and on, ad infinitum.

Perhaps their logic was based on folk wisdom, as in Papua New Guinea or maybe even some modern and sound neurological evidence. Regardless of the cause, this article seeks to perform a sort of archaeological dig to uncover and expose for review, the remnants of that ‘trilogy’ thinking on our profession.

Let us start at the highest level of project management. Many people, including the Project Management Institute (PMI) define the context of project management work (as distinct from operational type work) as the division into 3 areas:

  1. Portfolio Management
  2. Program Management
  3. Project Management

Then the concepts of Project Management for example, are then often neatly subdivided and alliterated into 3 again:

  1. The Product – namely the deliverable(s) resulting from the project.
  2. The Process – the approach, roadmap or rules followed during the delivery of the project
  3. The People – the performance, productivity and attitudes of the main resources on the project.

And anybody with a basic understanding of project management can see the ‘3’ fully exposed in the famous triple constraints related to the product of the project:

  1. Time
  2. Cost
  3. Scope

This article now delves even deeper into the concepts of Project Management to reveal a greater, almost religious, fetish with the number ‘3’ than might have escaped the notice of the amateur project manager.

Let us consider the area of People Management for a moment. This vast area of expertise has confounded our functional manager colleagues in operations management thinking for decades. They appear to have recently reached the point of no return where they are driven (and delighted) to be able to replace any living/ breathing humans with smart robots at the first smell of a business case. Maybe someday those robots will doubt their creator too.

Alas for Project Managers, this situation is not possible in the near future and we must continue to question and learn what it means to be human. In particular we have a necessity to embrace fellow humans as team members and stakeholders in order to deliver the project.

It seems to me after reading much of the literature (somewhat selectively, I agree) that great People Management can be decomposed into three sub-areas too:

  1. Goals
  2. Motivation
  3. Relationships

And as expected, each of these sub-areas has themselves been subdivided by their gurus into three again to develop our understanding of the area.

The first area of ‘Clarity of Goals’ is very well explained by William James and more recently by Victor Vroom who gave us a model (EIV) for understanding the setting of appropriate goals to motivation at an individual and team level. The three sub-areas are:

  1. Clarity – The goal must be clear ( Expectancy)
  2. Capability – The individual or team must feel capable of reaching/ stretching for the goal (Instrumentality)
  3. Personal Reward – The reward for this achievement but be valued by the individual/ team (Valence)

For the Motivation area we could turn to Maslow, Hertzberg and many others, who gave us valuable but lengthy, models to understand the subject. However the one that works very well in project management was developed by Douglas McClelland. His decomposition to assist understanding of motivation is not surprisingly divided into three:

  1. N-Achievement – those who derive satisfaction and reward from the achievement alone.
  2. N-Affiliation – those who derive satisfaction and reward from being a part of a group.
  3. N- Power – those who derive satisfaction and reward from decision making and control.

For the third part we can turn to Alan Fiske for his delightful model for understanding and managing the relationships between the team members. His insight is that all relationships can be categorized as either:

  1. Dominance – the powerful/ weak type
  2. Communality – share and share alike type
  3. Reciprocity – scratch my back type

It is as if an amateur anthropologist had uncovered secret ‘cave drawings’ in project management. Evidence, that appeared from the highest levels down to the minutest details of the individual steps to deliver a project.

And so the end of this article is to ponder the riddle of the Indian proverb of – How to eat an elephant?

The answer of course is ‘one bite at a time’.

Perhaps all that the project management gurus have done for us is to identify the individual bites sized portions of individual knowledge – albeit subconsciously – and it is time for us to put them all together to see what kind of animal or beast we have created out of those assembled pieces


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