What Does an Elephant Look Like?

Limited Perspective Leads to Overly Narrow Predictive Ranges

Most of us recall from childhood the Indian fable of the six blind men describing the elephant. In E&P Risk Analysis, it becomes an excellent parable to illustrate how limited perspective leads to overly narrow predictive ranges, and how group wisdom can be a practical remedy.

Of course, these basic ideas underlay the evolution during the 1990s of what is now a standard E&P organizational pattern: the multi-disciplinary team.

AAPG members Bob Sneider and Ted Beaumont were prominent among advocates of such working teams, which require personal expertise (derived through individual, often solitary research) as well as periodic sharing of data and perspectives aimed at shaping a group consensus regarding project evaluation, business tactics and execution.

"Two heads are better than one; four are better than two."


Another reason for the effectiveness of such professional teams can be traced back to Adam Smith (1723-1790), the father of free-market economics: heightened efficiencies that come with the division of labor.

Today, widespread use of workstations in E&P projects offers incredible productivity and improved resolution. But offsetting these advantages are a couple of under-recognized drawbacks:

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Most of us recall from childhood the Indian fable of the six blind men describing the elephant. In E&P Risk Analysis, it becomes an excellent parable to illustrate how limited perspective leads to overly narrow predictive ranges, and how group wisdom can be a practical remedy.

Of course, these basic ideas underlay the evolution during the 1990s of what is now a standard E&P organizational pattern: the multi-disciplinary team.

AAPG members Bob Sneider and Ted Beaumont were prominent among advocates of such working teams, which require personal expertise (derived through individual, often solitary research) as well as periodic sharing of data and perspectives aimed at shaping a group consensus regarding project evaluation, business tactics and execution.

"Two heads are better than one; four are better than two."


Another reason for the effectiveness of such professional teams can be traced back to Adam Smith (1723-1790), the father of free-market economics: heightened efficiencies that come with the division of labor.

Today, widespread use of workstations in E&P projects offers incredible productivity and improved resolution. But offsetting these advantages are a couple of under-recognized drawbacks:

  • Long hours of solitary effort that work to the detriment of development of interactive personal skills.
  • Results that characteristically emerge as deterministic expressions, single-value estimates, rather than probabilistic ranges, i.e. "The Answer," rather than a range of possible outcomes.

No wonder we are so frequently surprised by E&P results!

This leads to the recognition of two other qualities that are also essential for multi-disciplinary teams to function well:

  • Professional objectivity.
  • Good-faith teamwork.

In previous columns, I've hammered on our responsibility to our stakeholders and clients to be unbiased and objective about our geotechnical representations, as practicing professionals. It is unfortunate, but nevertheless not unexpected, that many, perhaps most, geologists and geophysicists who first come to work in the E&P business seem to think of themselves as scientists or employees, or technicians — rather than professionals.

Most resist joining their local societies, or AAPG, during their first years of employment, and getting involved in professional affairs.

A few months ago, I asked a distinguished professor at a prominent U.S. university, "How would your graduate class in structural geology respond if you asked them to engage in a class discussion about Professionalism in Earth Science?"

Apparently unconcerned, the professor replied, "They wouldn't have the foggiest idea what I was talking about — the topic is never discussed."

That's one reason why most young geoscientists only learn to work objectively in multi-disciplinary teams after they leave a university and join a company. Another has to do with the second essential quality: good-faith teamwork.

I was talking to another very prominent professor recently about academic tenure (one of my pet peeves as a taxpayer). He brought me up short:

"What is truly pernicious about tenure," he said, "is that it actively discourages teamwork. Young professors learn quickly that academic promotion is dependent on their performance as individuals — sole authorship of articles and sole directorship of projects is valued much more highly than participation and publication in joint projects. So when people become tenured after six intense years, they have no idea how to work in teams — they have been trained not to. And they transmit those attitudes on to their students."


Two keys to productive teamwork are active listening and respectful interaction. An overbearing, rude or condescending team member cuts off full input of alternative ideas.

One of our clients reported a team meeting to evaluate the exploration potential of a remote international region. The chief concern for the proposed play was the thermal maturity of an organic-rich shale formation that was expected to be present in the area.

The "ex-pats" on the team were very pessimistic, giving their confidence in the presence of mature source rock as values of 0.2 to 0.4.

One member of the team was a self-effacing older geologist of national origin, who quietly gave his opinion as 0.8.

When asked why he was so confident, he replied, "Many years ago, I was working for the National Water Division, drilling deep water wells in that area. Whenever we drilled through that black shale unit, we always took a hard gas kick. But we never told anyone about it because they would have shut down our water-well project, and I would have been out of a job."

Fortunately, the team leader had established a working atmosphere of open and respectful professional interactions. This key input was received. The team revised their appraisal, which resulted in several good gas discoveries about one year later.

Moral: "There's a profit basis for good professional manners."


Recommended Reading: What are the characteristic cultural values that encourage the effective establishment and function of free markets and economic development in nations? A remarkable collection of essays on this timely and critical topic is "Culture Matters — How Values Shape Human Progress," edited by Lawrence Harrison (Basic Books, 2000).

Read it, you'll like it!

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