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New Understanding: The Complementarity of Policy and Practice

Why should it be so hard to simultaneously see the forest and the trees, …the elephant and its parts. …light as particles and/or waves, …and more urgently, organizations and the people who create them to accomplish their purposes?

Quantum Physicists have helped us understand the perceptual problem that hinders our thinking — a condition they call Complementarity or Duality, and illustrate with the wave-particle duality of light.  Light has no ultimate singular reality, it can be understood to be a wave or a particle, depending on the purposes and tools of observer.  But in either case, use of the knowledge requires that light’s already present both/and nature has to be believed by those who had been locked into an either/or mindset.

In organizations this same condition plays out at several levels when we have to “see” and understand the focus of our efforts as an organizational “wave” or a bunch of individual people -“particles.”  And we have no way to think about them together in terms of their actual both/and condition in reality.  Without that, it’s difficult to understand how the success of the “wave” is a product of the “potentials” already embedded in each “particle.”

This is an age-old “problem” for which this modified Sistine Chapel ceiling may serve as metaphor.

Practices for Each Policies for All

This centuries-old picture of the “accepted” relationship between God and Man suggests we’re dealing with two universal critical, and related, conditions.

  • First, the fundamental difference in the nature of the purposes driving the daily actions of those at the two ends of people-serving institutions.  Some are accountable for what happens to all, others to each.
  • And then, notice the small, disconnecting gap between the two fingers. Critics sometimes expect that somehow policies will miraculously flow smoothly across that gap to emerge as practices at the other end.  (The late John Gardner termed this a “Penny Gumball Machine” belief — i.e., a coin inserted at the top produces gumballs at the bottom.)

Usually we don’t have opportunities to think much about the each or all nature of the purposes to which daily decisions in school systems respond, especially when those who have to deal with the needs of each child, and those who have to deal with the needs of every child, work in relative isolation from each other.

But even when we do think we know that this condition exists, we still have trouble figuring out what to do about it — e.g., what has to happen within the organization to convert the “all-ness” of curriculum to the “each-ness” of instruction.

The only thing manageable seems to be to take them on one-at-a-time on an either-or basis.  Why? Because, on a practical level, we “know” we don’t have the time and resources to deal with them both at the same time, even though at some level we feel they are inseparable sides of the same problem.

As an invisible consequence, a school system ends up trying to manage two relatively disconnected “systems” without ways to connect their accountabilities and responsibilities as part of work.

This duality (as Michelangelo suggests) is a universal condition that, over the ages, has been “felt” more than understood.  That may be why we find it more easily expressed through other “ways-of-seeing” such as art or metaphors that link new information to what is already “known” and accepted..  Among them, the story of the “Blind Men and the Elephant;” the picture that is at first glance a vase, but then instead maybe it’s two faces; or the Forest and Trees paradox.

And tangibly, we find the effects of this perceptual disability surfacing regularly in the pendulum swings between “centralization” and “decentralization” in organizations.

Actually I like the Forest and Trees metaphor for understanding the complex interrelationships of this condition better than quantum physics’ particles and waves because it deals with a living system of natural systems.  In a natural system its parts are functionally-connected for the system’s survival.  In ecological systems (as in the Forest and Trees) the connections are necessary to sustain that survival.

For me the Sufi Blind men and the Elephant metaphor captures so well the holistic nature of the problem of organization-fixing.  And even more now since recently discovering that the Sufi had another saying that goes to the nature of the “blindness” of those who can only see tangible “parts.”:

You think you understand one.
You think you understand two, because one and one make two.
But, you must also understand “and”.

Peter Senge addressed this “seeing” disability when he wrote about “The Art of Seeing the Forest and the Trees.”

“…the art lies in seeing through the complexity to the underlying structures generating change.
…it means organizing complexity into a coherent story that illuminates the cause of problems and how they can be remedied in enduring ways.
…What we most need are ways to know what is important and what is not important, what variables to focus on and which to pay less attention to.”

Using Senge’s metaphor, here’s one way to think of it:

In  the FOREST
where people
are accountable for:
are the TREES
where people
are accountable for:
Curriculum Instruction
Tests that collect data about conditions
that the system must respond to
Tests that collect data about an
individual’s condition that the
school staff must respond to
Efficiency – Doing things right Effectiveness – Doing the right things
Quantity – Equity for ALL Quality– Excellence for EACH
Equal opportunity Equal access
Standards for the cures:
Identifying criteria for the “ends”
of the instructional process for every student:
Standards for the symptoms:
Identifying criteria for areas of
student need in order to
determine the “beginning” of the process for each student
Explicit knowledge base of what works for all Tacit knowledge base of what works in particular situations
Problem anticipation Problem solving
Sustaining Just-in-Case resources Sustaining Just-in-time responsiveness
They search for ways
to fix things for “someday…
when there will be enough….”
They search for ways to
fix things today with time and resources

Yet both “systems” are simultaneously responsible
for the quality of children’s learning today!


  • Who then is accountable for creating and sustaining the connected system that can enable them to fulfill that shared responsibility every day? … and by what method?
  • If you prefer waves and particles rather than forests and trees, what happens when some particles (leaders, administrators) are also perceived to be accountable for the actions of the wave?

This means that each of them (as a particle) must make a difference in the actions of the wave.  They do this by making a difference in other particles capacities to make a difference themselves.

Do they need a frame within which to see those relationships? How can the Both/and nature of the lens’ dual view offer it?

  • What are the products of the “Forest’s” efforts and how can they be measured?  When we attempt to measure the results at the “Tree’s” end and attribute it the “Forest,” it’s hard to find measurable connections.  This is because the “Forest’s” products, in the form of “programs/projects” and “processes, are intertwined by the system’s common need, in the end, to make a difference for “each tree.”
  • How can they be aligned so that the “forest’s” programs/projects and processes all support the work of the “trees?”

For example, usually programs and projects serve as containers for attempts to make a difference for “trees.”  But they generally fail to meet the needs of every “tree” because those who manage the “Forest” have not been held accountable for producing another “product.”  This would be regular processes that enable every program and project to respond to the needs of their intended “trees.”

  • It is these processes that can maintain continual informed interaction to bridge the gap between the two “systems.”
  • And, ironically, they need to be embedded in the part of the system that most people without thinking hate – the central office “bureaucracy.”


  • How did MCPS bridge the gap noted between the two “fingers” of Policy and Practice in a way that supports “regular processes that enable every program and project to respond to the needs of their intended “trees?”

They’ve done this by developing a sustainable scaffold of processes that fit both definitions of “Scaffold:”

  1. a temporary structure for holding workman and materials during the  repair of a building
  2. In learning, a temporary support supporting a new behavior that fades out as the new ways of acting become internalized and natural.  For example, training wheels, or an adult running alongside, as a child learns to balance and ride a two-wheel bicycle.)

What started out as Working on the Work initiatives have been coming together as a strategic management process that can support the tactical problem-solving needs at the varying levels of the district’s work.

  • Because a “learning organization” is first an organization of individual learners who learn through trial and error interaction, its work must be structured to accommodate that natural trial and error process.  But schools are organizations where “errors” can impact children?

How did MCPS build-in ways to monitor those “errors” and quickly modify course?
How was the “virtual cycle” used as a change strategy to develop commitment and support.


Comment from Ariadna
Time July 6, 2012 at 3:41 pm

you need time to create interesting and additionally post, real effort to make such a good article.

Comment from admin
Time July 7, 2012 at 9:39 am

Ariadna – not sure what your feedback means. Are you looking for this content in a print article?

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