In my last post, I promised to address the two elephant metaphors used by Peter Senge. As a reminder we have the idea that if you break an elephant into two you don’t get two elephants and the second is the cliché of blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and seeing different things. It goes back to at least 500 BCE or earlier, I first encountered it in Nairobi in the 1970s but I am sure everyone has seen it. Just in case. You haven’t I’ve copied the summary text from Wikipedia at the bottom of this post. I promised to address both of these from an anthro-complexity perspective and you should really read this post in conjunction with my other recent one on managing for emergence.
Now there is little question that if you take an axe to an elephant (not something I would recommend on practical or ethical grounds) and split it into two all you get is a bloody mess. And as a message against reductionism it sort of works. But it really misses the point and by the way, if I take the axe to a starfish (a less hazardous enterprise) then actually I get five starfish as they can regenerate from a single arm. Choose your victims with care, the context is important. In terms of life and regeneration the arms of the starfish are the lowest coherent element, for the elephant it is the elephant. The said elephant is itself the result of multiple combinations and recombinations over time and that process is irreversible. Equally, the elephant is more than the simple sum of the various bones, sinews, blood vessels and so on, It has a history and memories and social interactions and much more besides.
An organisation is more than the sum of its members and artefacts but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t meaningful to look at and manage different aspects of the whole. Put the various parts together in different ways, change the interactions and different things will emerge. The point about scaling a complex system is you decompose to the lowest level of coherent granularity and then recombine (often with the results of other decompositions) to allow new patterns and capabilities to emerge. Determining the level of coherence is key and in Estuarine Mapping we use a simple test – keep breaking it down until there is no disagreement. At that point, you can do things at a micro level. If you break the elephant up then you get ivory, meat and so on but you can’t get back to the elephant. So if you want to ask a simple question in a lot of organisational change then it will be a variant of Is this a starfish or an elephant? Ask reductionism involves breaking things into parts, but not all decompositions are reductionist.
So that brings us to the second metaphor and that is problematic on many levels. There are two ways it can, and has been misused:
The process of discovery, probing, testing, talking experimenting is what it is to be human, and we should do so with hope. My problem with the proverb is that it is static, in reality, all and every interaction will give feedback, and create anomalies that trigger people to see things differently. Without an anomaly of some type, we don’t see things differently which is why conflict is important as is heterogeneity. Another argument against an articulated common purpose. Also if we have any prior knowledge of the elephant and we are in a zoo or a watering hole in Africa then the plausibility of it being an elephant, not a snake etc is much higher.
All human discovery is dynamic, not static. We (to quote Clark) hallucinate possibilities and test with reality, taking actions to increase the sensitivity of the probes and respond to novelty. We are not some form of smart camera. The act of realising it’s an Elephant will itself produce changes; life and meaning-making are dynamic. And of course, the Elephant is only one type of pachyderm. You can’t outrun the Rhino but you have a good chance of distracting it and the more you know about the nature of its vision the more canny you can be in evading it. Of course, Hippos are a different matter altogether and you just need to get the hell out of there and hope there is a solid tree to climb. Hippos are, by numbers, the major animal cause of human death worldwide. All of the pachyderms (no long a valid category by the way) are thick-skinned but in no case are you considered prey by any of them, let alone a tapir, but you may end up as road kill never less. There is a metaphor in that for organisational change.
The parable of the blind man and the elephant
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.
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