Steering a supertanker…


…it’s quite easy actually.

We often use analogies to explain why something is challenging or difficult.

One analogy that is often used is the iceberg, a good example of this is Schien model of organisational culture.


The problem with icebergs is that the focus of any discussion about the topic often switches to the Titanic, an unsinkable ship that sank after hitting an iceberg. Then discussion moves onto what a terrible or excellent film it was, and it’s not long before someone shouts out “I’m king of the world” with outstretched arms. Before you know it, you have no idea what you were discussing and the important stuff is slowly sinking to the seabed!

Sometimes we make assumptions in our analogies which are just plain wrong. The supertanker in the title of this blog post is a prime example. We compare organisations to supertankers as these huge behemoths that are challenging to steer and keep going in one direction with no way of turning them.

Searching Google on how to turn or steer a supertanker, the only results you seem to get are articles and news items on how something else is like trying to turn a supertanker!

The reality is that steering a supertanker is quite easy and they are in fact highly manoeuvrable, they have to be to dock at refineries and ports across the world.

What is challenging with a supertanker is stopping to avoid hitting something, and most times supertankers don’t stop they turn and move in a different direction.

Maybe the supertanker analogy isn’t so bad after all…


2 thoughts on “Steering a supertanker…”

  1. In their excellent book ‘From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery’ Frank Coffield and Bill Williamson use a different analogy, James. Like you they think ‘big transport’, but they talk of juggernauts rather than supertankers:

    “… it is as if all our policies in education are like the efforts of road hauliers to make this old-fashioned juggernauts travel faster on modern, overcrowded motorways. They can make as many marginal adjustments to fuel injectors, transmissions and exhaust systems as they like, but they remain trapped within the logic of a transport system that is essentially absurd… In this way a grotesque educational juggernaut has been pieced together and added to over the years and is now a shuddering pantechnicon…

    There is, however, thick fog ahead on the motorway along which this juggernaut is trundling, but it is now being forced to increase speed without a clear view of the danger in front of it…”

    So everyone concentrates on trying to coax more ‘performance’ out of education system, the ailing juggernaut (i.e. continual marginal increases in test scores and inspection grades) without thinking at all about the direction in which the system is going (which should be towards appropriate curricula for the 21st century). Technology has changed the relationship between human beings and factual knowledge for ever, yet we still insist on using techniques of teaching and assess from the 19/20th century. Now we may argue about whether steering the supertanker/juggernaut on to a new route is easy or difficult, but surely the problem is that as a society we have not yet worked out which educational route we need take in the 21st century. We are stuck in the fog – not a nice situation for a juggernaut, a supertanker or an educational institution!

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