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The 18th Camel

Many business owners struggle to achieve what they really want because they conflate their interests with their positions.

The 18th Camel

There is a famous riddle about a dying man who bequeathed seventeen camels to his three sons. Half of the camels were reserved for the oldest son, a third for the second oldest, and a ninth for the youngest. However, seventeen is not easily divisible by two, three or nine, and his sons were forbidden from slaughtering or selling any of the camels.

How could they fulfill their late father's specific instructions?

In desperation, they turned to a trusted friend for counsel. The friend offered to loan them one of his own camels, increasing the total herd to eighteen. This neatly solved the problem: the oldest son inherited nine camels, the second oldest received six, and the youngest acquired two. Collectively, this totaled seventeen camels, so the friend took back the one that he had kindly lent them.

While the puzzle relies on some contrived mathematical conveniences, it nonetheless serves as a valuable lesson in creative problem solving. In particular, it highlights the folly of conflating interests and positions. Interests are the outcomes that you want; positions are your plans for achieving them.

When we conflate the two, we become so attached to our positions that we lose sight of our interests. In other words, stubbornly insisting on doing things our way supersedes getting what we actually want. This closes us off to alternative positions that support the same interests.

We see this in business all the time. Fixating on a binary set of positions (e.g. your budget vs an employee's salary demands; your pricing vs a customer's counter-offer) usually leads to a zero-sum standoff where no deal can be reached without someone making a significant concession.

You can resolve these deadlocks by adding an 18th camel. In other words, prioritise interests over positions, and then expand the pool of negotiable benefits accordingly.

For an employee who wants to earn what they're worth without sacrificing too much family time, this might mean balancing an affordable fixed salary with performance-based incentives and flexible working hours. For a customer that wants to optimise their gross margin and reduce costly supplier failures, it might mean structuring a volume-based pricing scale with service guarantees.

Take a moment to clarify your own true interests and detach from your current position. You may discover that you are surrounded by 18th camels.