Squaring the Circle

2 06 2009

Vitruvian manFirstly, apologies to any regular readers (esp Dad) for the lack of posts with the explanation that there has been a fair degree of upheaval at work recently in management circles not the least seeing your own correspondent applying for a management position.

As some may be aware, the proposed topic for my Master’s thesis is an interrogation of the interface between hospital clinicians and management. Gathering together some of the insights I have gained in the last few months from both study and College days, one thought I am struggling with is that my personal and perhaps aspirational view of how this interface might be developed may not be possible to achieve.

Something else that has challenged me every since I struggled under the tutelage of Mr Fairley is mathematics. I recently spent a lovely evening with a  friend who, amongst other things, shamed me by expressing their love for the simplicity and logic of algebra; a subject that to me is both incomprehensible and yet alluring. A Euclidean geometry puzzle the ancients played with was that of squaring the circle; the challenge of constructing a square with the same area as a given circle with a compass and straightedge.

For millennia mathematicians have struggled over this apparently simple puzzle unable to come to an effective answer or to understand why they were failing. Children with set squares and time to pass could arrive at a solution that was nearly correct so therefore wrong. Eventually the Lindemann–Weierstrass theorem was proposed that proved that Pi (π) is a transcendental, rather than an algebraic irrational number and thus the problem could not be solved. In simple terms, there is a solution mathematically but not for a number that you can actually write down and work with.

How this all relates to management is slightly tangential. (Sorry, very bad maths joke.) My point today is that for my ideal interface between hospital clinicians and management it appears almost naïvely that there should be a relatively straightforward and achievable solution with an almost personal and ongoing conversation regarding the aspirations and performance of both the clinician and the mechanics of the institution. Whilst that sounds selfishly reasonable from the view of the clinician it makes sense to me that for a monolithic construct such as even a small hospital this would be impossible in time and complexity. (Exactly why Consultants should believe that this is owed to them is another, wider debate.)The same must be true in other professional bureaucracies such as the Law, Higher Education and the like.

So are we attempting to solve an impossible puzzle? If it takes squaring the circle to achieve it, that is definitely something worth striving for. Is it not better a close approximation as da Vinci achieved with the Vitruvian Man than nothing at all? Without such, we’d be where we currently are, and few are satisfied with that.




3 responses

2 06 2009
Anne Marie Cunningham

Nice to see another blog post! About squaring the circle, you need to make it clear that the challenge is to produce the square using only a compass and a straight edge. It is EASY to calculate how long the square of the edge should be. I’m not sure what this adds or takes away from your analogy.

At least one can work out if the square and circle are of equal area. The problem is that even knowing if two people (or management and clinicians, or doctor and patient) actually are in agreement or not is a big part of the challenge.

So in summary I would say that squaring the circle is a good deal easier that communication between sentient bodies.

2 06 2009

Anne Marie, thanks for your comment, and so quick too. Maybe I need to reference you as the regular reader along with my Dad!

As I alluded, maths is definitely not my strong suite but my understanding is that whilst we think the answer is easy to calculate, because it involves Pi, ultimately it is impossible. is that not the problem? I will (re-) add those words though, thanks.

4 06 2009

I used to love mathematics when I was younger. All is so clear, all is black and white, only right or wrong. Just the way I like it. But I started struggling to apply this to my live and my surroundings. Live is not black or white. Unfortunately there is a lot of grey in between, even different shades of grey.
As regarding to squaring the circle, my question would be “ why would you?”
Why would you want to start something, which you (kind of) know is condemned to failure from the beginning? And then come up with an excuse why it wouldn’t have work anyway. (Declaring PI a transcendental number…nice way out, smile).
Why not start with small achievable steps? If I look at the amount of books I have to read and things I have to know for my next exam….it looks completely unachievable. But if I start with just one book…perhaps just one page at a time…..?
Which brings me to your idea of “nearly getting there”. What is wrong with that? And who said you have to stop there afterwards?
Why not take small achievable steps and develop “perfection” from there?
Surrounding circumstances might have changed as well, which might make it easier to achieve your ultimate goal as a second step. Once you have broken existing patterns, started communications and improvement, people might actually start to see the benefits and are more likely to comply with changes afterwards, may even work together with you on further improvement.
“Nearly there” is just exactly that, nearly there. It’s not perfect but a hell of a way away from were things are now. I fail to see where that is a bad thing!
As for squaring the circle…..I like them round anyway.

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