As a complexity or systems thinker, what kind of blind man are you?

by | 12 Jul 2021

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Version 1

A group of blind men came upon an elephant. One touched the side of the beast and thought it might be a wall. One felt a tusk and supposed he must have a spear in his hand. Another man grasped the tail, guessing it was a piece of rope. Yet another man brushed the elephant’s knee and surmised that he had touched a tree. However, none of the men said a word and went on their way.

Version 2

As before, the set of blind men came upon an elephant. They experienced it in the same way but this time made their declarations aloud. They got into a heated argument about who was right and proceeded to brawl in the dust about the truth of wall vs tree vs spear vs rope. The wise elephant honked her trunk as loud as she could, sending the men scattering.

Version 3

When the men encountered the elephant, they started to discuss what they had found. “‘Wall,’ you say? That’s interesting! I have a spear here.” They talked and debated until they had a better idea of what they had discussed together. “Some kind of long-nosed rhino we think … so far,” said the boldest. “We’ll let you know if we change our minds.”

Version 4

As version 3, but how do I, the storyteller, know it’s an elephant? And why do you, dear reader, assume that it is not a rhinoceros with an extended snout?

As systems thinkers, we are the blind men

We interpret and pontificate about how the world is and works using our various flavours of complexity and systems thinking. As a complexity and systems community, which version of the story do we most resemble? We should also have the courage to tell stories, but we must ensure that we are humble enough to bear the knowledge that as a storyteller we may be just as mistaken as the “blind” men in the stories we tell.

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