As a consultant in the cultural dynamics of complex organizations and systems one of the fields I work in is education. That’s my professional background anyway, and certainly complex enough to have prepared me for the work I now do in other fields too.
Yesterday I was heading from Brighton to London to train a group of Headteachers. Of course Headteachers are a fairly capable bunch as a rule, and no strangers to the complexity of human relationships, so I was looking forward to the session, as usual.
The train arrives on time, gladly, and I settle down for what should be a quick and pleasant ride. Here in England we are quite used to the rail network grinding to an inexorable halt because of the wrong type of leaves, which insist on falling with nauseating regularity every autumn, or because of the wrong kind of snow, presumably the globally warmed kind – all sticky and slippy, which has also now become a seasonal fixture in the premier league of national nuisances. But right now the sun is shining and it’s definitely the right kind of sun, not the kind that melts rails or jams points. It looks like a trouble free journey ahead.
Opposite me sits a man reading a magazine about engineering, which reminds me of my recent invitation to join the team at Expert Alumni. The company is entering a new phase in its development, growing beyond its slightly oily origins in the energy and engineering sectors. And I start to thinking about the metaphorical similarities between what I do and what some structural engineers do – and as I’m on a train I’m thinking tunnels.
Part of what I do is help people to expand, illuminate and support their reality tunnels, even to get outside of them for a while and shed new light on how they intersect with those of other people, like the various lines of the London tube system: Finding and minding the operational and communications gaps where the ball can fall, and working out ways to plug them. And then my mind flits to the infamous spoof game known to obscurantist humourists of a certain age as ‘Mornington Crescent’.
I’m just imagining my way along the Central line, halfway between Mile End and Tottenham Court Road when a voice comes over the PA system. It snaps me out of my smiling reverie. It’s the driver. O dear; he is apologizing. A delay ahead. No leaves, no snow, no bad sun – never mind the gap, this could be serious!
It is: while I’m thinking tunnel networks and systems of structural support a tunnel has partially collapsed near Gatwick. Thankfully nobody has been hurt, but no trains shall pass! Me and a quarter of a million other commuters are completely cut off from London. We are all disembarked at a station called Haywards Heath. Buses will be provided, as soon as any can be found.
It’s not a queue it’s a sea of people, scores of trains-full; and the man with a megaphone is warning us about the ride back out of London that evening, assuming we make it there – if this is a sea get ready for an ocean later! Smiling, he advises us of a three-hour delay going in to London and a five-hour delay returning.
It will all be in the hands of a person with a torch, the structural engineer, as soon as one can be found and brought in. He or she will have the train company breathing down their neck to patch it up and sign it off, and set against that the voice of their professional code never to compromise safety or integrity: a bit of a squeeze. I hope he or she has a good torch with fresh batteries.
That’s the wedge: at the thin end one person, one torch, one good battery, and the fat end 250,000 people with goodness knows what riding on the day, whole life-worlds at stake no doubt. For want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the battle was lost … Chancery Lane, Chalk Farm, Pimlico… Mornington Crescent!
Anyhow, that’s my tunnel caved in for the day. I get word to all the Headteachers to postpone. I’ll write a piece for the Expert Alumni newsletter instead. Every tunnel has a silver lining!