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!”