How to Eat an Elephant

By Spurgeon Thomas

Projects come in all shapes and sizes; some are the size of Chihuahuas, others are the size of elephants. So how do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

Recently, I have read articles within the IT industry that suggest many are frustrated with the failed results of Agile projects. When I read “Agile is Dead,” I wonder about the many successful deliveries that use the methodology. Critics of Agile often opt to skip the hardest obstacles using hybrid approaches. This is dangerous because often the hardest obstacles lead to the most growth and breakthrough. For example, not holding the entire team accountable for each deliverable leads to distracted members. One must shed the notion of individuality on an agile team. They need to embrace the idea that each task requires all-hands on deck to ensure the highest priority is completed first.

It’s not really a battle of the methodologies, per se, rather, it’s the internal battle of the stakeholders’ mindsets. Some people are plotters. Others are pantsers. A plotter plans the details upfront before working. A pantser starts working on what needs to be done now. This is the nature of “traditional” Project Management, as outlined in the PMBOK, versus Agile.

Before a plotter builds, she transforms a project request into a collection of related work breakdown structures and milestones to be delivered as individually assigned tasks.

Before a pantser builds, she transforms the scope of the business problem into a stack of prioritized work for her team to build together.

Having worked on plenty of waterfall projects and agile projects, I can say neither is the better approach. However, if you don’t follow the protocol of either, you will limit your success.

So how do we eat a living elephant?

Let’s eat an elephant the agile way.


Jill approaches the village chief, accompanied by four villagers.

 “Hi Jill,” Rob, the village chief, says.

 “Hi Rob,” Jill, replies.

 “Are you ready?”

 “To eat this elephant? Yes, we are ready. But how? It is so big!” Jill and her team looks at the elephant.

 Rob laughs hard, slapping his knee and clutching his midsection. “You will eat this elephant one bite at a time.” He pauses his hysterical fit. “Which part of the elephant is the most nutritious? Please arrange these parts in order of the most nutritious.”

 Jill leans forward, licking her lips. “The ears are first,” she says.

 “Why the ears?” Rob probes.

 Rubbing her tummy, she says, “The ears are the thinnest and fastest to cook.”

 Rob rubs his chin. “So speed of preparation is important?” he questions.


 “Which is better the left or right?”

 “Everyone thinks the right side is better for some reason.”

 “We will check into the reason later. Please prioritize the rest.”

 Jill goes on to place the elephant’s body parts in the following order based on nutrients per square inch:

  1. Right Ear (10 nutrients)
  2. Left Ear (10 nutrients)
  3. Trunk (7 nutrients)
  4. Head (6 nutrients)
  5. Right-Front Leg (4 nutrients)
  6. Left-Front Leg (4 nutrients)
  7. Right-Rear Leg (4 nutrients)
  8. Left-Rear Leg (4 nutrients)

 “Thank you, Jill. In your opinion, how long does it take to consume 4 nutrients?”

 “We had Elephant Leg Stew last month, three times. It took all 5 of us about 5 days to eat one leg.

 “I see. So if we time-box your eating to 1-week sprints, you should be able to eat this elephant in approximately 12.5 weeks?

 “Sounds good to us.”

 “Okay. The right ear is too big for this week. We will have to cut it in half and finish the rest the following week.” Rob hands one of the villagers a blade. He cuts the ear in half. The elephant buckles and kicks the villager in the chest, sending him crashing into the ground.

 Jill runs to his side. “Are you okay?” she questions.

 “I am good, but I broke the blade.” The villager stands back up and dusts himself off staring at the broken blade.

 “We almost lost one of your eaters.”

 “Glad we didn’t, but now we don’t have a blade.”

  “Don’t worry, I will remove the obstacle and order another for you.”


Note of Agile in practice:

Agile is beneficial for projects that have changing or unknown priorities. The purpose for not estimating everything is to ensure that the TEAM focuses on the highest priority. After about three sprints, the entire project should be capable of estimation, and therefore predictable.


Sprints are team activities, not a collection of individual contributions. Jira, Atlassian's agile collaboration tool, disables multiple sprints (time-boxes) that account for the same team-time. No TEAM can be in two places at the same TIME.


Spurgeon Thomas

Urbanity Life, LLC, San Diego, CA


I am a #writer#businesssystemsanalyst, and #projectmanager, specializing in community improvement and creative project management. @urbanitylifesd