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Some days you’re just a glorified mahout

Today I had the unfortunate pleasure of attending an all day workshop. This involved spending 6 hours with 10 people in a room with no windows, no aircon and pretty much no fun.

In order to focus on the task ahead and give it my full attention I left my phone at my desk, my laptop in my bag, and my sanity at the door.

Despite having no direct distractions I did find my mind wandering at a couple of times (6 hours is a long time after all). One of these wanderings was to a story my dad told me about his recent holiday in Thailand.


On one of the days he and my mum went on an idyllic Elephant trek, where they were led through the shade of the plush forest on a lovely hot day, culminating in the elephants going for a refreshing dip in a crystal clear lake at the end, with my parents still aboard.

Now that all sounds very lovely, but what my dad went on to tell me was that the first thing the majority of elephants did when they entered the water, was to do a massive shit, and given that we are talking elephants here I imagine for once he wasn’t exaggerating.

If you’re like me when I first heard the story then you now have an image of 2 pensioners sitting astride a huge beast, in a lake, surrounded by floaters. If you didn’t, you do now (you’re welcome).

Well this vision is partly true, but is not as real as you might think , and this is all down to the mahouts.

Mahouts are by definition ‘a person who works with and rides an elephant’. Usually, a mahout starts as a boy in the ‘family profession’ when he is assigned an elephant early in its life. They remain bonded to each other throughout their lives.

In this particular scenario the mahouts also get into the water with the elephants and wade / swim close behind them with the direct intention of removing the crap from the water as quickly as possible.

There’s not much sophistication involved here, apparently elephant dung is very similar in size and shape to a small football, so the mahout literally pick it up and lob it to the edge of the lake, where another mahout gathers it all into a great big steaming pile.


In the 80 degree heat and full sun, the smell must be delightful.

I’ve subsequently learnt that when dry, elephant dung is often re-used to produce other goods, so it doesn’t go to waste. The biggest product is paper! If you don’t believe me check out these brilliantly named companies POOPOOPAPER or Mr. Ellie Pooh.

Anyway the mahouts don’t complain about their role in this situation, they just do it. They want to ensure that the purpose of the trip is fulfilled. They know that their role is unglamorous, they won’t get any direct plaudits but that their role is critical to the whole experience.


Anyway – after this brief interlude my attention came back to the requirements workshop and the words:

‘The solution must use X system in order to populate fields A, B and C’

‘Stop!’ Interrupted one of the stakeholders, ‘Requirements should not define the solution or systems, they should define the business need, not how we meet them.’

A good point well made I thought to myself, I wish I’d said that… Then a couple of minutes later:

‘The solution will ensure that colleagues have the training in order to deal with generic questions regarding the completion of the application.’

‘That’s not a requirement’ the same stakeholder stated, ‘Remove it. But make a side note of it, we might be able to do something with it later.’

Then it struck me. Like a turd the size of a football falling on my head from a great height. He was the mahout. He’d self appointed himself the role for the day.

It was probably tiring, exhausting in fact, constantly being on the lookout for poop. Trying to keep the workshop clean. Having to catch it and remove it before it started to breakdown and muddy the water. But he took the hit for the team for the day, and did a pretty good job of it too.

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It’s not glamorous, but someone’s got to do it. Having a bunch of corporate people in a room for a long period runs a high risk of becoming very dysfunctional and not the best use of everyone’s time.

You need someone to keep you on track. To lead you down the right path to the destination at the end, and to tidy up the poop along the way.

If today that turns out to be you, embrace it and be the best mahout you can be.

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