The elephant and the pot

Whenever I met someone new and talked about business analysis, requirement gatherings or happy customer; I used to narrate the following story from Tales of Tenali Raman which I read in my school days. The story has many variations but the crux is the same. It is about the king who promises to Tenali Raman that he can keep any one in this world happy as he has the powers and resources to achieve that. Tenali Raman challenges that it is impossible and brings a kid to the palace.

The King sits beside the kid and tells him that he will get him anything to keep him happy. The kid immediately asks for an elephant and gets it. He goes on a joy ride on the elephant around the town along with the King. They stop when the kid gets excited on seeing a pottery ware house and asks the King to get a fancy looking pot for himself. The King obliges and orders for a pot. Now the kid asks the elephant to get into the pot and the pot breaks. The kid lets out a loud wail that the pot is broken. The King to keep up his promise, orders one more pot and the same thing happens. It keeps on happening until all the pots are broken and the kid continues to cry. Having watched all this, the kid’s mom rushes in with a small toy elephant and convinces the kid that the toy is so good that it fits into her basket and they can take it home. The kid gets convinced and leaves for home happily with his mom leaving the embarrassed King behind.

Why I narrate this story is, we are right now moving our days through information overload and the idea of the whole system never gets painted in our mind. We always tend to think problems to be linear and little do we give a thought about how small actions can have long term effects. In the above story the King never asked the intentions of the kid when he asked for a pot after getting the elephant, had the king known that before he could have talked the kid out of buying the pot by explaining before the kid lost his cool. Similar situations happen in day to day work especially when requirements are collected iteratively; but the situations are not so easily visible to our eyes like the elephant & the pot story and end up with rework because of trying to achieve something as a result of completing it by parts.

We need to acknowledge that there exists a system which is not linear and the whole system is much more than just the simple sum of the parts. Also wish to introduce a term from the book Patterns of Software, by Richard P Gabriel

Organic Order – the kind of order that is achieved when there is a perfect balance between the needs of the parts and needs of the whole.

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