#27: There is no elephant 🐘

On my new job and seeing "the whole system".

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.

So oft in theologic wars,
    The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
    Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
    Not one of them has seen!

John Godfrey Saxe

Hello, dear reader,

Well, a lot has been happening this week! As some of you many have heard, after two years in ATO Design, I am moving to a new role leading the development of the Enterprise Performance and Improvement Centre (yes, that’s EPIC…! 🥳), a new branch which will support the ATO to take a holistic view of its operations and drive a culture of end-to-end improvement. In all the excitement, I missed my deadline for this week’s newsletter—it was bound to happen eventually! Mea culpa.

At some point, I will write an issue about what I learned during my time in ATO Design, including how it has shifted the way I think about the power and possibility of systems work in the public sector. ATO Design has a long history as a path-breaker in the application of design in government and the past two years have been no different.1 I’m exceptionally proud of the small part I have played as we have continued to break new ground in the development of a more systems-led and complexity-friendly approach to design practice—what we have called “systems-led design”. I’ve shared parts of that story with you before but, with time, there will be so much more to tell.

In the meantime, I have been reflecting on my new challenge. What does it mean for an organisation to take a holistic view of its operations? How can it understand those operations from different vantage points or perspectives? What kind of new possibilities does a more holistic view enable? In asking myself these questions, I reminded of one of my one of my favourite systems thinking clichés: the story of the blind men and the elephant. Some of you may have heard the story before, but for those of you that haven’t or that need a refresher, it broadly goes as follows:

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.

The story has multiple iterations and inflections. Some are true to the original intent, others are bastardisations used to peddle a particular messages. More and more, I see the story used as a way to suggest that together we have the capability to “see the whole system” or take more holistic view of a particular problem or context. There are parts of this parable I love, but this particular framing perpetuates a range of unhelpful messages about complexity:

  • It encourages the view that the elephant is a “thing” that can be objectively understood. Quite the opposite. There is no elephant and—even if there was—its parts are best understood not as a metaphor for the different parts of the system (“the whole system”), but for the different worlds we experience as we grapple with complexity and our attempts at making sense of them. We can appreciate and make use of those different perspectives even if they might not result in something we can all call an elephant.

  • It is used to justify the claim that a consensus view of a problem or context is possible if you get people to talk about their different perspectives. As I have written before, consensus is neither possible nor desirable in a complex environment. One of the basic principles of complexity is that different individuals experience complex systems in different ways. Some of those differences are probably superficial, but there are others that will be material, incongruous and paradoxical. The common impulse is to iron over those differences (what I’ve seen called “analysis” or “synthesis” or “triangulation”) in search of shared understanding, but we should not be afraid of difference and multiplicity in our work. Accommodating it does more justice to complexity than pretending it does not exist. It would do us well to reflect on what is lost when we prioritise superficial alignment over meaningful difference.

  • It underplays the conditions that lead to the silences and incompatibilities amongst a group of perspectives. If we acknowledge that attempts to understand complexity are always partial, then our task should be to understand the conditions that enable and constrain the emergence of different perspectives. Why do people only have access to certain sensemaking practices? Why do some have more voice than others? Why are some listened to more frequently? If we can embrace the idea of the elephant as a set of multiple (but partial) understandings, views of complexity that are both complementary and contradictory, then—ultimately—we might be able to build an account of the world around us that weaves knowledge, context, and power together in a rich empirical setting.

The quicker we can agree that there is no elephant to be seen, the better. Over time, I’ve come to understand that the holistic, “whole of system” view that we so commonly claim to reach for is not about uncovering the elephant. Instead, it is about creating a space in which we can sit with multiple, potentially incompatible perspectives, make connections between them because of and despite their differences, and have conversations about what we can do with them that we might collectively value. It’s that kind of space that I hope EPIC will be.

A final word…

Of course, my favourite part about the the irony of this story, and its centrality to arguments about systems thinking, is that it equally applies to conversations about what systems thinking is and what it is not. In one of the earliest versions of the parable, the elephant in question is the Buddhist concept of the dharmas. Perhaps then it unsurprising that in our own theologic wars, we prate on about systems thinking as if our particular interpretation is that same Elephant, despite it being something that not one of us has ever seen 🐘

By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.

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Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <luke.k.craven@gmail.com>.


Nina Terrey’s telling of the story is the most comprehensive.