The Tube and complexity

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

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I’ve really enjoyed the new BBC docco The Tube.

As a passenger I tend to take the tube for granted and grumble when it doesn’t quite work to plan. What the films bring out is how staggeringly complex the system is. In particular they bring out the human complexity of it.

Everyone working or travelling on The Tube has their view of what it is and should be. For instance, one passionate Piccadilly line driver thinks each line has a different personality, and his is the best. I forget which one he likened to a librarian, but you have to admire his enthusiasm. Others might see it as epitomising everything that’s wrong with an impersonal selfish city; others again as the lifeblood of a thriving optimistic metrolpolis.

Much of the drama comes when these different worldviews come into conflict. Sadly, these conflicts tend only to reinforce the worldview rather than open it to questioning. For example, when a passenger is attacked on a station, the police declare a crime scene and close it just as the system deals with the rush before nighttime shutdown. For outraged passengers, unaware of what’s happened, this just confirms their view that system is run by imbeciles. For the station staff, this just confirms what intolerant selfish people the passengers are. When folks are told there’s been a stabbing, you get the impression there is at least a double take; but I get the sense everyone’s quite attached to their own version of outrage at the other’s behaviour.

I think a few minutes of this would be salutary viewing for anyone claiming to understand how to manage complexity.

By the way, I can’t help noticing one of my worldviews being reinforced by the show. The show makes all the Underground personnel come over as very human in a good way. But I do find the management a bit less sympathetic, especially when sitting around tables in rooms trying to sound important. And I also note that whoever furnishes these rooms seems to delight in finding a table that’s really too big for anyone to feel they can breathe comfortably while sitting at it.

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