James Johnston: The problem of thinking in straight lines when life is a tangled knot

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Travel today might seem complicated – destinations, carriers and nature of travel – but it shouldn’t be complex. Indeed, and despite the ever-growing concerns over the environment, more and more people see travel as a right; every destination of the world a secret to be explored by all.

I came home from Europe last Friday on what I can only call the journey from hell.  It all started well, with my taxi arriving as planned, and delivering me and my bags to our next destination, together, in order and ready for the next element: the flight.

JJ Johnston.

Knowing that the seat that I was booked to occupy would not necessarily fit a small child, I decided to attempt to ‘upgrade’. I inquired and was told rather forcibly that my ‘ticketing did not permit upgrade’.  Well that was that. I moved to put my hold luggage on the receiving ramp and was told: “No!  You don’t have ticketed luggage!”  The more bizarre element of the story is that I was flying home on the same ticket reference that brought me out, upgraded and with baggage.

I offered to pay for my bag but was informed, firmly but politely, that I could not pay for my bag because of my ticketed travel. And then only to be bamboozled by “you can upgrade and take a bag”.  I foolishly showed some interest in why I could upgrade to take a bag, but I couldn’t upgrade on the ticket per say – I was now caught in the “I will get the supervisor’” loop whereby it was likely that I had now successfully barred myself from travel that day.

We often confuse or misappropriate the terms complicated and complex; the former indicating a linear activity, or sequence of activities, that lead to the resolution of a problem, and normally through a recognised process. When things are complex it tends to suggest that there are both parallel and sequential activities, and with external influences, that need to collaborate in order to deliver on a problem. In my mind the matter of my bag was complicated but resolvable – but modern-day practices, the adoption of minimum cost, multifaceted inter-company relationships, and the lack of resilience in most of today’s business cycles means that complicated rapidly becomes complex.

You will be pleased to know that I did get my bag on board and for the sum of 240 euros, along with the privilege of a seat that was wide enough to take my 12 stone body, but with only sufficient leg pitch to allow my 32 inch legs to caress the back of the seat in front. Oh well, things couldn’t get worse.  But they did.  For I was shortly to find out that I had the family from hell behind and a cabin crew on board that didn’t appear to care.

The mild kicking of the back of my seat turned into what I can only believe to be a gymnastics performance undertaken on the tray table behind me.  Of course, I was unable to properly turn around to assess the situation because of the confined space in which I found myself.  I politely asked the ‘nanny’ if she could ask the child to stop.  Unfortunately, she just chose to ignore me.

So I pressed the crew call light to ask the cabin crew to resolve the situation. The cabin crew listened attentively, smiled, and walked to the front. The purser then came rearward and asked me “what was my problem?”. I immediately started to sense that this wasn’t going to go well.  I indicated that I didn’t have a problem, rather, I would just like them to ask the child to give my back a break.

Cutting a long story short, the cabin crew then managed to not only incite the parents, but effectively encouraged the child to put ever more energy into their performance and abandon me to my fate. I guess it was all too difficult to resolve because once more the problem had grown from being complicated to being complex. Too complex for the cabin crew to solve so they abandoned the task to time and the fact that at some stage in the near future we would land, the child would lose interest and stop or the parents might take responsibility for their charge.

For those interested, Option B played out. We landed, I moved on and vowed never to use that airline again. Of course, the issue is not the airline but rather the society that we have become. These days we seem to confuse activity with productivity, we transpose nationalism with cosmopolitanism, we abandon accountability for driving forward change, we mistake information with communication.

We have by and large made our lives (and loves) complex. This is at odds to our linear thinking.  Our real problem for the future is that leaders and politicians try to solve highly complex challenges as if they were merely complicated.  As we spiral uncontrollably towards the 31st October 2019, how many of our political representatives know what Article 218 is – it isn’t complicated, it’s complex.


James Johnston is a business owner, chair of the The Malt Whisky Trail and served as Station Commander for RAF Kinloss

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