Once upon a time, there were four men who very much wished to know what an elephant looked like. But they did not know where they could find an elephant. One day, they heard from others that the king had an elephant and they decided to apply to the king for taking a look at the elephant. After they sent the application, the king generously agreed them on visiting the elephant. But there was a requirement that for the king's privacy their eyes must be blindfolded which means they could not look at the elephant but feel it. The four men happily agreed on this requirement.
On the visiting day, the four men were guided into the palace with eyes blindfolded. When they reached the elephant, the man who walked in front reaching out with his hand, first felt the elephant's tusk, and said, "I got it, the elephant is like a great, thick, smooth radish." The tall man's hands first touched the elephant's ear, and he shouted, "No, no, the elephant is clearly like a great fan!" "The elephant is just a big pillar," said the another man, as he felt the elephant's leg. But the last man who felt the elephant's tail, said, "Huh? The elephant is not so big, because, it's nothing more than a length of rope." The four men quarreled without end, all insisting that the part they had felt was the true shape of an elephant.
This fable is very famous in China and it was probably from India originally. This fable is describing those people who only see a part of something or shortsighted people who mistake a part for the whole. When I was learning systems thinking, this fable came into my mind. The purpose of systems thinking is trying to help us avoid being blindfolded when we analyze the systems or solve problems. We are easily to see only part of the whole and in some way it is difficult to see the whole. That is why we need to learn and practice systems thinking. When we face problems, it is common to relate the problems to what we have known or our expertise; however, this sometimes could prevent us knowing the real problems. We tend to see the part which we are familiar with but ignore other parts of the whole. Systems thinking could help improve our ability of seeing the whole and avoid being a blindfolded person.
This fable pulls out the point that systems thinking is important. However, it does not tell too much how we do systems thinking. Actually, we could take this fable from another perspective. According to Dr. Russell Ackoff , they are three steps for systems thinking. Firstly, take the whole a part; then try to understand what the parts do; lastly, assemble the understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole. We could think the fable as a partial step one and two. The problem with the four men in the fable is that they only understand a part of the whole other than all parts of the whole. That is why they cannot tell what the elephant looks like. Try to image that if those full men could communicate with each other after touching the elephant before make the final decision, they could possibly figure out how an elephant really looks like. If other parts of the whole are missed, it is not possible to assemble all parts of the whole, let alone systems thinking. Trying to understand all parts of the whole and putting them together will be the key of systems thinking.
These stories are adapted examples written in my class, IS 6840 (formerly MSIS 488).
© Vicki L. Sauter. All rights Reserved.