The 18th Camel

By | September 5, 2014

IMG_0269 September 5

While traveling though the desert sands of Arabia on his camel, a Bedouin chief noticed in the distance a small herd of camels.  As he approached, he saw near the camels three men shouting and waving their hands.

“What seems to be the trouble?” asked the Bedouin.

“Our father has recently died and he left us these seventeen camels,” answered one of the men.  ”But we cannot agree on how we can divide them between us.”

“Why is this a problem?” asked the visitor.

“Our problem is that we are unable to follow the instructions left to us by our father in his will.  As oldest son, he left to me one-half of the camels;  to the next brother, one-third, and to my youngest brother, one-ninth.  But no matter how we try and divide the camels, we cannot find a way to make it happen.

The Bedouin chief thought for a moment, then he said “I believe I can help.  I make you a gift of my camel.  Here, take it.  Now you own 18 camels.”  To the oldest brother he said, “One-half of 18 is nine and so you are now the owner of nine camels.” To the next brother he said, “One-third of 18 is six, so  your share is six camels.”  He then turned to the youngest brother.  ”One-ninth of 18 is two and so two of the camels are yours.”

“Now, let’s add up the camels that each of you owns, ” he said. “Nine, six and two equal 17 camels, leaving one, the 18th camel.  The one left over is the one I gave you a few moments ago, so now I will take it back.” And so mounting his camel and waving goodbye to the three brothers,  he continued his journey.

In this story the three brothers were faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem: They could not divide up the camels according to their father’s will. The traveler had a “gift” that he was able to offer to the brothers that, once accepted, allowed them to find a way out of their dilemma and move forward.  He was able to provide a most rare and important benefit:  He “added value”  to a difficult situation.  By offering his gift of the 18th camel, he not only helped the brothers solve their problem, he also gained their gratitude and appreciation. And for good measure,  in the end he got his camel back.

Putting aside for the moment the problem with the math, in this story there are two important questions for us to consider:  First, do you or I have the skills, knowledge, ability, or experience that, if offered and received, can help others find their way out of  thorny problems?  And second, if we do, are we able and willing to offer this “18th camel” to others when they need it.   If the answer to both questions is Yes, then we are primed to move through our lives with a huge advantage:  We can “add value” to others that we associate with, be it in relationships, families, communities or business organizations.  And those who “add value,”  when contrasted to those who do not, are universally welcomed, appreciated, honored, and protected.

In the business world, whether or not a person “adds value” to the goals and purposes of the organization is the salient issue.  While this principle is not always explicit, it is always in play. If you are not adding value, you will not be welcome for long.   Several years ago, Steve Ballmer, then CEO of Microsoft, was asked  how long he planned to stay in his job.  His answer is instructive:  ”I will serve as along as the board wants me, and I feel I’m adding value.”  Not long after this, he resigned, apparently sensing that he was no longer able to add value.  If a person is not adding value, then sooner or later he or she will be asked to leave the company.

The most valuable “18th camel” to offer to others consists of the skills, knowledge, and experience that companies (or relationships) must have and cannot do without.  In personal terms, the most powerful way to “add value” is to have unique and valuable skills and knowledge, those that are in short supply,  and be willing to offer them.   If you know what few others know, and are able to do what few are able to do, and if what you know and what you can do is essential, then  you have the quintessential advantage.  Not only are you in a position to add value, you will seen by others as valuable.

Thinking of what we do as offering”gifts” that may (or may not) add value may seem to  be an unusual way of understanding human behavior.  Yet if what we do is not seen as adding value,  we will soon find ourselves outside looking in.  Jen-Hsun Huang, CEO of Nvidia, sees adding value as the leader’s “real work:”  ”It is not possible for the CEO [s] to know everything,” he said in an interview in the New York Times, “but it is possible for [them] to add value to everything.”  How do leaders add value?  Here are Huang’s suggestions:

  • You’re better at looking around corners than most.
  • You probably have better intuition.
  • You’re [able]to see the forest better than most.
  • You’re probably able to deal with complexity better than most.
  • And so you bring a perspective that is unique.
  • By asking the right questions, you can get to the heart of the issue right away.

There are, of course, many skills, abilities, attitudes and behaviors that add value.  But as I suggested above,  the ones that are most important are the relevant ones, the ones that the family, the marriage, the company, or the community desperately need and do not have.  When asked by Adam Bryant of the New York Times what advice he would give to new college grads, Paul Venables, founder and excutive creative director of  the advertising firm Venables Bell and Partners was concise and to the point: “Find something your boss is doing that he hates doing – it’s difficult, painful, time-consuming – and say ‘I’ll take that’ and make it great!”

What are the painful, difficult, time-consuming issues that all bosses hate?  They are almost always Wicked Problems. And the reason that they hate them and try their best to avoid them is almost always that they do not know what to do with them.  They are baffled.  They are hoping for someone with an 18th camel to come along.

It is a truism to say that we all want to be successful in whatever we set out to accomplish.  Yet we are often unclear about how to make it happen.  The single best way to insure success, the most effective “18th camel,” is be be insightful and skillful in working on problems, and especially  wicked ones. There is no better way to consistently add value for yourself and for others.

In his book,  Smart Thinking for Crazy Times, Ian Mitroff identifies what he sees as the most important “18th camel”:

The ability  to spot the right problems, frame them correctly, and implement appropriate solutions to them is the true competitive edge and will separate the successful individuals, organizations, and societies from the also-rans.

If we are able to find the right problems, then know how to take action so that things improve,  we will enjoy a “true” competitive edge.  We  can be confident that instead of finding ourselves among the “also-rans”  we will be included on what is almost always a short list of the “rans!”










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2 thoughts on “The 18th Camel

  1. Matt Elkins

    The problem that is the three brothers cannot solve how the camel should be split because they are only focused on what they can see; they are trapped in a group think. The bedouin chief sees that that there is a simple fix to this tame problem, the brothers need one more resource to balance the problem so by adding one camel, the brothers can now see how to solve their problem.
    The skills that Bedouin chief used to solve the dilemma were by asking the right questions, being intuitive, and applying the right knowledge, which he as master through experience.
    About wicked Problems.
    Wicked or tame?
    When deciding if a problem is wicked or tame, the author’s points out the main clarification, is there a ending point that can be measure to determine if the problem is fix. If this can be answered yes, then this is a tame problem even if it is big and hairy, at least you know where it ends. Wicked problems are just the opposite. They can look nice and clean but do not have a clear or precise resolution point which can be measure. They can only be maintained in the current perception of humanistic views which will fluctuate as external forces are pushed upon the ongoing issue.

  2. Kyle Gornell

    For my class Leading and Managing Change (MAN-498) at Colorado Mountain College we read many of the articles on your website. My favorite was the 18th Camel because it put into perspective the difference of tame and wicked problems and how they relate to the business world while using a creative story. The story of the 18th Camel that starts the article helps to put into perspective some of the assets someone should have in the business world in order to add value and to be an effective leader. Some of my key takeaways from this article and others that have talked about wicked problems include the following:
    ◦ Bing new knowledge to the table
    ◦ Have unique perspective
    ◦ See the big picture
    Having an understanding of what wicked problems versus tame problems are along with sound business skills could make the difference in the real world as leaders try to bridge the gap between problems and solutions.
    Thanks for the insight,
    Kyle Gornell


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