Thursday, January 19, 2006

Wrinkles and straight paths

I have always believed that all city streets should form a neat grid pattern; it seems unreasonable to me that a street would start out running east/west and wander until it runs north/south. A spoke pattern, as in the old Celtic cities (like Dublin) makes a kind of sense, too. If you start out a little bit wrong, you move farther and farther away from where you want to be going.

So I have sympathy with people who think in straight lines, people who are great a drawing maps so precise that no matter how many turns one makes, the impression is always that the destination is straight ahead. I appreciate the notion that it is always possible to get there from here, just by following the information we have in proper sequence and with appropriate rigor.

Except. . . one of the books that influenced me as a child was called "A Wrinkle in Time" (by Madeleine L'Engle). In it, a wise character compares the paths that two ants might take across a woman's skirt. One ant has a map: he follows the curves of the fabric up and down, climbing hills, dipping into valley, and moving persistently around the knees or elbows that might appear to block his way. One of the things we know about ants is that they are good at persisting and at getting where they are going. The second ant is also good at getting where he is going: instead of a map, he has a wrinkle. He doesn't have to follow the original plan if the destination and the starting point are suddenly pulled into adjacent positions by a wrinkle in the fabric.

I recognized my friendly ants this week while I was reading a paper on the differences between, and integration of, strategic planning and strategic thinking. My persistent ant was definitely a planner: he could follow the line wherever it led, charting each step on the course and confident that he would ultimately arrive at his destination. My wrinkle crossing ant was a strategic thinker. He knew where he wanted to go and simply stepped into that destination. Plans and maps meant less to him than being alive to the knowledge that where he was going was closer than he thought.

It seems like a long distance between the two approaches, that a strategic planner would have to learn and practice and learn some more in order to become a strategic thinker. He would, of course. The strategic thinker would have a much easier time learning to be a strategic planner. He would simply step across the first available wrinkle, allowing the chasm to become a bridge.

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