Once upon a time long, long ago I was a callow college Vice Principal and so wet behind the ears there was watercress. And one day we spent an entire lunchtime discussing the problem of the queue in the canteen.
So stupid was I, it hadn’t even dawned on me that the queue was a problem but the college principal, who was much older and wiser than me, represented the gravity of the situation to me with such force that soon I was wondering how on earth I could possibly have managed to cast my eyes on that orderly line without immediately wailing and gnashing my teeth.
We needed a solution and we’d assembled an impressive collection of job titles to find it: one principal, two vice principals and an assistant principal, the entire senior management team. After only an hour and a quarter’s focused discussion the principal came up with the answer. Resources was my area so off I trotted to tell Celia down in the canteen the good news.
Turned out Celia hadn’t thought there was any problem with the queue either. I disabused her of that idea pronto and explained the plan. Celia looked at me rather blankly I thought and pointed to a hot-plate. ‘But that’s a hot-plate’, she said. I looked at it. Sure was. And, unless we were going to demolish and re-build the entire canteen, it was also the end of senior management’s great solution.
Where had we all gone wrong? We were the senior management team: Decisions R Us, right? So how had this one so simply and obviously failed?
We failed because we were partly competent and because of that, partly blind. We were competent to make a decision about the queue because our job roles empowered us to and also because, for the same reason, we could bring the resource to bear to make things happen. Short of rebuilding, that is.
But we were so full of a sense of our own importance that we couldn’t see that we didn’t actually know what we were talking about. We didn’t even have the wit to hold our discussion in the canteen where we could at least have seen how things worked and where an expert like Celia might have overheard what we were up to and put us straight.
So we overlooked a humbling truth. However grand your title, a good decision still needs two people: someone like you who understands the big picture and someone who understands the detail of how things work.
Once you cotton on to this you see examples of it everywhere. You hear it when the journalist asks the Prime Minister how much a pint of milk costs. It’s present, too, in the Ancient Greek myth of Antaeus who couldn’t be defeated at wrestling – providing he could keep his feet on the ground. Heracles lifted him up in a bear hug. Squish.
But my favourite example is the stone garden in the Ryōan-ji zen temple in Kyoto. Fifteen stones are so arranged that wherever you stand on the perimeter you can always see precisely fourteen.
It’s an immensely down to earth (literally so!) way of making you see that one pair of eyes – even an emperor’s – cannot see the whole truth.
In one of his Dream Songs, John Berryman describes the garden and with a twist of irony:
how big it is!
austere a sea rectangular of sand by the oiled mud wall,
and the sand is not quite white: granite sand, grey,
– from nowhere can one see all the stones –
but helicopters or a Brooklyn reproduction
will fix that –
One day I’ll go there and as I’m standing at the edge of the gravel counting the stones I’ll catch a glimpse of Celia out the corner of my eye. Together we’d be able to see them all.
Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.