Study Slain by Swamp Monster!


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Study Slain by Swamp Monster!


I’m trying a new format for blog posts. 

For those of you in a hurry, to get to the “bottom line” of this post, you can skip the story and go right to the bold-faced “lesson” at the end. I’d really you rather read the whole thing of course, but I know some readers are harried and hurried. So, if that describes you right now, feel free. 


In the early 1980’s, researchers at the IBM Watson Research Center invented a new kind of system. Originally, this was called the “Speech Filing System.” It was initially designed to allow so-called “office principals” (sales people, managers, executives, engineers, etc.) to dictate letters and memos which could then be typed up by the pool of typists. Instead of requiring each “office principal” to have (or borrow) a dedicated piece of dictation equipment, they could accomplish this dictation from any touch tone phone. While this offered some savings in cost and convenience in the office, it was even more wonderful on the road. People did not have to take their dictation equipment with them on their travels. They could use any touch-tone phone. 

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The system was invented largely by tech-savvy psychologists (including Stephen Boies, John Gould, John Richards, & Jim Schoonard). When they observed people actually using the system, they discovered that the trial users more often used the ancillary messaging facility than they did the “real” dictation features. So, the system was redesigned and repurposed and then renamed, “The Audio Distribution System.” In some ways, using the “Audio Distribution System” was much like leaving a message on an answering machine. However, there were some crucial differences. Typically, a person calling someone and encountering, instead of a human being, a message asking them to leave another message was somewhat taken aback. Many messages on answering machines went something like this: “Hi. Stephen? Oh, you’re not there. OK.  This is John. I was hoping … well, I thought you’d be in. Uh. Let’s see. You know what? Call me back. We need to talk.” And, when Stephen discovered that he had a message, he might listen to it and call back John. “Hi, John. Stephen here… I … oh. OK. A message. Sorry. You just called me. Well, um. I’m not sure what you wanted to talk about so. Call me back when you get a chance.”

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By contrast, when someone called the “Audio Distribution System” they knew ahead of time they’d be interacting with a machine. So, they could compose a reasonable message before calling the system. Hence, the messages tended to be more coherent and useful; e.g., “Hi, Stephen. This is John. If it’s okay with you, I’m taking off this Friday for a long weekend. If you have any issues with that, let me know.” See? Easy and efficient. 

A second critical difference was that you could listen to your message and edit it. People didn’t do this so often as you might think, but it was comforting to know that you could in case you really messed up. (For instance, a person might say, “You are fired!” when all along they meant to say, “You are NOT fired.”). 


Introducing any new system will have consequences, both intended and unintended. I wanted to see what some of these consequences might be. Corporations, IBM included, like it when they sell lots of product and make lots of money. A related question then was – what is the value of this product to the customer? Why should they want to buy it? 

One hypothesis I wanted to test out was that such a system would increase people’s perceived Peace of Mind. After you leave a meaningful message for someone, you can “cross off” that little item off your mental (or written) “to do” list. By using the Audio Distribution System, I thought one of the user benefits would be increased “Peace of Mind” because they would be able to leave a message any time and any place they had access to a touch tone phone. They could save their working memory capacity for “higher level” activities such as design, problem solving, and decision making. We were going to roll out a beta test of the Audio Distribution System at the divisional headquarters for the IBM Office Products Division (OPD), in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. Not coincidentally, OPD would be the division selling the Audio Distribution System (just as they were now selling dictation equipment). Before the trial commenced, I developed a questionnaire designed to get at how much people felt harried, too busy, coping, etc. The hope was that I could compare the “Peace of Mind” scores of people who did and did not get the Audio Distribution System and perhaps show that those with the system felt more at peace than those without. I could also compare “before and after” for those internal beta customers who had the system. 

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Before I was to roll-out and administer the “Peace of Mind” questionnaire to a sample of people at the OPD Franklin Lakes location, guess what happen just two days before the beta roll-out? OPD was re-organized out of existence! The people who worked there would now be looking for another job elsewhere in IBM (or, failing that, just elsewhere period). The beta trial was cancelled. In any case, even if it hadn’t been cancelled, the impact of the re-organization would have completely swamped (in my estimation) the impact of this new tool. Moreover, it struck me as insensitive and slightly even unethical to ask people to fill out a questionnaire about how hassled they were feeling just days after finding out their entire division had been blown up. How would you react if some psychologist from the Research Center showed up asking you to fill out a questionnaire two days after finding out you no longer had a job?

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What is the lesson learned here? You have to understand what is going on in the lives of your users over and above the functions and features directly related to your product or service. Of course, there is always a fairly good chance that some of your users will have overwhelming things going on in their lives that will impact their reactions to your product. Generally you won’t know about divorces, deaths in the family, toothaches, etc. But if something is impacting all your users, you’d best be aware of it and act accordingly. 


Speech Filing System

Audio Distribution System – NY Times

Longer explanation of Audio Distribution System

Video of Audio Distribution System’s cousin: “The Olympic Message System”


Author Page on Amazon



In the Brain of the Beholder


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In the Brain of the Beholder. 


Most people in the related fields of “Human Factors”, “User Experience”, and “Human Computer Interaction” learn how to run experiments. Formal study often largely focuses on experimental design and statistics. Indeed, these are important subjects. In today’s post though, I want to relate three experiences with actually running experiments. Just for fun, let’s go in reverse chronological order. 

In graduate school at the University of Michigan Experimental Psychology department, one of my classmates told us about an experiment he had just conducted. Often, we designed experiments in which a strictly timed sequence of stimuli (e.g., printed words, spoken words, visual symbols) were presented and then we measured how long it took the “subject” to respond (e.g., press a lever, say a word). Typically, these stimuli were presented fairly quickly, perhaps 1 every second or at most every 4-5 seconds. This classmate, however, had felt this was too stressful and wanted to make the situation less so for the subjects. So, instead of having the stimuli presented, say, every 4 seconds, my classmate decided to be more humane and make the experiment “self-paced.” In other words, no matter how long the subject took to make a response, the next stimulus would be presented 1 second later. So, how did this “kindness” work out in practice? 


A few days later, I heard a scream in the lab down the hall and ran in to see whether everyone was okay. One of my classmate’s first subjects had just literally ran out of the experimental room screaming “I can’t take it any more! I quit!” My classmate was flabbergasted. But eventually, he got the subject to calm down and explain why they had been so upset. The subject had begun by responding carefully to the stimuli. So, perhaps they took ten seconds for the first item, and the new stimulus came up one second later. On the second go, they took perhaps 9.5 seconds and then the next stimulus came up one second later. As time went on, the subject responded more and more quickly so the next stimulus also came up more and more quickly. In the subject’s mind, the experiment was becoming more and more difficult as determined by the experimenter. They had no idea that had they slowed back down to responding once every 10 seconds, they’d only be presented with stimuli at that, much slower speed. 

So, here we have one way that these so-called subjects differ from each other. They may not interpret the experiment in the framework in which it is thought of by the experimenter. In this particular case, there was a difference in the attribution of causality, but there are many other possibilities. This is one of many reasons for doing a pilot experiment and talking with the subjects. 

The next earlier example took place at Case-Western Reserve. In my senior year, I was married and had a kid so I worked three part time jobs while going to school full-time. One of the jobs was teaching “Space Science” and “Aeronautics” to some sixth graders at the Cleveland Supplementary Educational Center. Another one of the jobs was as a Research Assistant to a Professor in the Psychology Department. We were doing an experiment with kids in an honest-to-God “Skinner Box.” The kids pulled a lever and won nickels. Meanwhile, on a screen in front of them, there appeared a large red circle and then we looked at how much the kid continued to press the lever (without winning any more nickels) when confronted with the same red circle, a smaller red circle, a red ellipse, etc. 


There was a small waiting room next to the Skinner Box and that had a greenboard on it. So, since there was another kid waiting there just twiddling his thumbs, I decided to give him a little mini-lecture on the solar system: sun at the center, planets in order, some of the major moons, etc. 

After each kid had finished the experiment, I always asked them what they thought was going on during the experiment. (This was despite the fact that the Professor I was working for was a “strict behaviorist”). When I asked this kid what he thought was going on, he referred back to my lecture about the solar system! 

Oops! Just because the lecture and the experiment were two completely unrelated things in my mind didn’t mean they were for the kid! Of course, they seemed related to him! Both involved circles and they both took place at the same rather unique and unusual place: a psychology laboratory. 

And this too is worth thinking about. We psychologists and Human Factors people typically report on the design of the experiment and hopefully relate the instructions. We, however, do not typically report on a host of other things that we think of as irrelevant but may impact the subject and influence their behavior. Was the receptionist nice to them or rude? What did their friends say about going to do a psychology experiment or a UX study? When the experimenter explained the experiment and asked whether there were any questions, was that a sincere question? Or, was it just a line delivered in a rather mechanical monotone that encouraged the subject not to say a word? 

Of course, the very fact that humans differ so much is why some psychologists prefer to use rats. And, the psychologists (as well as a variety of biologists and medical doctors) don’t just use any old rats. They use rats that are carefully bred to be “lab rats.” They are expected to act in a fairly uniform fashion. And, for the most part, they do.

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I was helping my girlfriend with her intro psych project. We were replicating the Yerkes-Dodson Law. This states that as you increase stress, performance improves, but only to a point. After that, additional stress causes performance to deteriorate (something that software development managers would do well to note). One of the ways I helped was to get some of the rats out of their cages. I would open up the top of the cage, reach around the rat behind their next and pull them out. Not a big deal. All the rats were quite placid and easy to handle. They all acted the same. Then, it was time to get the day’s last rat who was to be placed in the “high stress” condition. I went to the cage and opened it just as I had done for the last dozen rats. But instead of sitting there placidly and twitching it’s nose, this rat raced to the bars of his cage and hung on with both of his little legs and both of his little arms with all his might! Which might was not equal to mine but was rather incredible for such a tiny fellow. Rats sometimes squeak rather like a mouse does. But not this one! This carefully bred clone barked! Loudly! Like a dog. Whether this rat had suffered some previous trauma or was subject to some kind of odd mutation, I cannot say. 

But this I can say. Your “users” or “subjects” are not identical to each other. And, while modeling is a very useful exercise, they will never “be” identical to your model. They are always acting and reacting to a reality as beheld by them. And their reality will always be somewhat different from yours. That does not mean, however, that generalizations about people — or rats — are always wrong or that they are never useful. 

It does not mean that gravity will not affect people just because they refuse to believe in it. There really is a reality out there. And, that reality can kill rats or people in an eye blink; especially those who actively refuse to see what is happening before their very eyes. 


Who knows? You might be about to be placed in the “High Stress” condition no matter how tightly you hang on to the bars of your cage – or, to your illusions.  


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Chain Saws Make the Best Hair Trimmers


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Continuing with the theme of deciding how much risk is “reasonable” to take in your career and your life, I’d like to share a story about my time at a mythical company we will label as NYNEXX. NYNEXX we’ll imagine, was one of the so-called “Baby Bells” who provided local phone service. It was created from the break-up of AT&TX. NYNEXX paid some marketing company millions to come up with the name which is for New Yorkx (telephone), New Englandx (telephone) and XX = who knows what we might do in the future!? And sure enough, within five years most people who were served by NYNEXX knew it was a brand of headache remedy. See, marketing is not nearly so scientific as some (particularly those selling marketing services) would have you believe. More about that another time. NYNEXX later merged with Bell Atlanticx and then with GTEx and has transmogrified into a company known as Verizonx. (Any resemblance to similarly named companies, such as NYNEX, of course, is purely coincidental).  


This story concerns itself with professional advice I was asked to render. At the time, I was the executive director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at NYNEXX Science and Technology. But my management chain knew that I was knowledgeable in Human-Computer Interaction, Human Factors, User Experience etc. In fact, I was asked to start up and then head up the AI Lab to do work in speech recognition, expert systems and machine vision. Before even accepting the job, I explained how much we also needed a group doing Human-Computer Interaction research. This turned out to be a wonderful thing for all the obvious reasons, but one of the non-obvious reasons was that it helped cement HCI into the minds of my management. 

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A hot summer day, several of us were called into a conference room by one of the chief aids to the CEO so we could advise on a new proposal the CEO had for increasing trust of top management. You probably intuit quite well that it’s important for workers and managers to trust the top management of the company. The numbers for NYNEXX at that time (decades ago) had been abysmal several years running. The first year that they reported results, only something like 14% of the workers trusted top management. The numbers were even worse for lower management than for union workers. Top management decided the reason for these terrible results was that people did not know enough about top management and the reasons for their decisions. So, they instituted a plan to TELL people more about why what top management was doing was RIGHT, damn it! They did this for a year and then re-measured the results. Now, the percentage of workers who trusted top management had skyrocketed all the way to about 10%! Wow! In the company rag, which I believe was called The Leader, they reported last year’s numbers, this years numbers, and then said that with all their success, they would continue the program for another year. Huh? Yeah, right? And this was way back when Donald Trump was still merely a racist, misogynistic, unfaithful, bankrupt builder.  


The top NYNEXX management had called in one of the top business consultants on the topic of trust and he related to them the story of Sam Walton. You have to understand that whatever you may think of Sam Walton, Wal-Mart, or the Walton heirs, he was a down to earth, hands-on manager. He would spend half his time riding around in his pick-up truck with his hound dogs in the rear of the truck and go personally to the stores and see how things were going and talk to his store managers. At some point, the business grew so large that it took a long time to get back to every store so they started an hour long conference call each week. Each of his store managers called in to a conference call number and any manager could explain in one minute, a problem that they had encountered and solved. Since each of the store managers might face many of these same problems, this sounded like a very useful exercise in knowledge sharing and organizational learning. Part of the reason it worked as well as it did was no doubt because the managers could relate to Sam Walton. They already trusted him because of all his personal contact and the reputation that arose from that personal contact. I am sure the conference calls served to further enhance mutual trust in the organization as well as provide valuable organizational learning. 

The chief aide from the CEO’s office explained all this to us by way of background. Next, he revealed their “take-away” and plan from the consultant’s consultation. They would do what Sam Walton did! He was trusted! So, now they would be trusted. Well, the design rationale thus exposed caused that same facial expression to appear on my face as when I discover that the jar of garlic-filled olives I was looking forward to consuming is completely encased in a finely feathered grey mold. Why the crinkled nose? Because NYNEXX top execs were nothing like Sam Walton when it came to being content to be “just folks.” They didn’t drive pick-up trucks, but were chauffeured in stretch limos. They didn’t ever wear jeans and a plaid shirt. They wore 3-piece suits. Even in the shower. So, already this plan was showing a serious issue. It seemed to me that it would succeed in about the same degree as my wearing the same brand of shoes that Rafa Nadal wears would enable me to create the same degree of speed and top-spin on my forehand drives that he does. Aside from the much more collegial nature of Walton’s relationship to his employees than our executives enjoyed, the other major difference is that all the Wal-Mart store owners faces at least some similar problems. There was a reason to share information. By contrast, the diversity of contexts and jobs and roles that NYNEXX managers faced was tremendous. Some sold yellow page advertising. Some led AI labs. Some managed repair crews. Some managed coin-counting operations. Still others were in charge of long-distance operators.


At the time, there were about 1000 Wal-Mart stores but there were 70,000 NYNEXX managers, so the top management at my company decided it simply would not do to allow them all to talk; it would be chaos. So, to increase “trust” in top management, all 70,000 NYNEXX managers would leave whatever else they were doing each Friday morning at 9 am and dial in to a conference call and hear the CEO talk at them for a solid hour. So, here’s one dilemma. As a so-called Human Factors Expert, I am supposed to take humans as they are and design to them. But I am sitting in the meeting thinking, “How the hell can adult human beings in management not be smart enough to see what a bad idea this is!” But it’s antithetical to the premises of the field to yield to the temptation to shout that. 

And now the aide approaches the punchline, with this gem. “But we do want to make it interactive. At the very end of the hour, each manager will press one of the keys on their touch tone pad and we’ll record their answers. So, for example, the CEO might talk for an hour about how important it was for each manager to know precisely their job responsibilities. And, then, at the end of the talk, every manager would be told to indicate by touch tone on a ten-point scale how well they knew their job responsibilities.” So, this was the plan. Now, the aide turns to me and says, “So, that’s why we need your help. You’re a human factors expert. Should we have them use the “0” key for ten? Or should we use “9” for the top of the scale and “0” at the bottom? Which one?”

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Here we have an example of a classic dilemma in human-computer interaction. The boss/developer/client/customer asks you a very specific question. You could answer the question, but you know that it is the wrong question. Do you answer their question? Or, do you point out that they’ve asked the wrong question? And, what if you point out that it’s the wrong question and they insist that you answer the question asked, not the one you think they should have asked? I do not think that one answer is correct for all circumstances. How much are you willing to risk? It will depend on culture, for instance, and your circumstances; how much your own boss supports you; how much you care about keeping your current job – and many other factors. Here is what happened in this case: 

I explained to this aide as clearly and calmly as I could that this whole idea sucked big time and why it sucked. No, I didn’t use that term. On the other hand, I probably could have toned down the exasperation in my voice just a tad. But sometimes, a degree of righteous anger is appropriate. It wasn’t simply that this was a bad design. It was a bad design because they had no understanding of how trust is created or any ability to empathize with their 70,000 managers that they were supposed to be leading. So, it’s not clear to me that it was inappropriate to be a bit exasperated. 

The aide’s face grew red. He got a pugnacious look on the front of his head and said, “WELL! When my boss, who by the way, is the CEO, asks me what the best way to do something is, it is my job to tell him the best way, not to tell him it’s a bad idea!” 

To which, I responded, “Well, when my boss asks me which type of chain saw is best for him to use to trim his hair, it’s my responsibility to tell him that a chain saw is a really bad way to cut his hair!” 

It makes me chuckle to recall it, but the aide didn’t find it all that funny. One of my colleagues also pointed out the telephone traffic congestion peak created by having 70,000 people call in simultaneously. We apparently put enough doubt in their collective corporate mind that they ran some focus groups on the idea and it was thankfully never actually implemented. 

Silly ideas like this may soon grow more common and the penalties for pointing out the truth may well grow more severe. We all have to ask ourselves how much we will tell the truth — and how much we will answer the wrong question in order to save our jobs, our ratings, our lives. This is not an issue limited to human factors and user experience. It can happen anywhere when people are put in charge based on something other than experience, expertise and a commitment to excellence. 

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Madison Keys, Francis Scott Key, the “Prevent Defense” and giving away the Keys to the Kingdom. 


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Madison Keys, Francis Scott Key, the “Prevent Defense” and giving away the Keys to the Kingdom. 

Madison Keys, for those who don’t know, is an up-and-coming American tennis player. In this Friday’s Wimbledon match, Madison sprinted to an early 4-1 lead. She accomplished this through a combination of ace serves and torrid ground strokes. Then, in an attempt to consolidate, or protect her lead, or play the (in)famous “prevent defense” imported from losing football coaches, she managed to stop hitting through the ball – guiding it carefully instead — into the net or well long or just inches wide. 


Please understand that Madison Keys is a wonderful tennis player. And, her “retreat” to being “careful” and playing the “prevent defense” is a common error that many professional and amateur players fall prey to. It should also be pointed out that what appears to be overly conservative play to me, as an outside observer, could easily be due to some other cause such as a slight injury or, even more likely, because her opponent adjusted to Madison’s game. Whether or not she lost because of using the “prevent defense” no-one can say for sure. But I can say with certainty that many people in many sports have lost precisely because they stopped trying to “win” and instead tried to protect their lead by being overly conservative; changing the approach that got them ahead. 

Francis Scott Key, of course, wrote the words to the American National Anthem which ends on the phrase, “…the home of the brave.” Of course, every nation has stories of people behaving bravely and the United States of America is no exception. For the American colonies to rebel against the far superior naval and land forces (to say nothing of sheer wealth) of the British Empire certainly qualifies as “brave.” 


In my reading of American history, one of our strengths has always been taking risks in doing things in new and different ways. In other words, one of our strengths has been being brave. Until now. Now, we seem in full retreat. We are plunging headlong into the losing “prevent defense” borrowed from American football. 

American football can hardly be called a “gentle sport” – the risk of injury is ever present and now we know that even those who manage to escape broken legs and torn ligaments may suffer internal brain damage. But there is still the tendency of many coaches to play the “prevent defense.” In case you’re unfamiliar with American football, here is an illustration of the effect of the “prevent defense” on the score. A team plays a particular way for 3 quarters of the game and is ahead 42-21. If you’re a fan of linear extrapolation, you might expect that  the final score might be something like 56-28. But coaches sometimes want to “make sure” they win so they play the “prevent defense” which basically means you let the other team make first down after first down and therefore keep possession of the ball and score, though somewhat slowly. The coach suddenly loses confidence in the method which has worked for 3/4 of the game. It is not at all unusual for the team who employs this “prevent defense” to lose; in this example, perhaps, 42-48. They “let” the other team get one first down after another. 

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America has apparently decided, now, to play a “prevent defense.” Rather than being innovative and bold and embrace the challenges of new inventions and international competition, we instead want to “hold on to our lead” and introduce protective tariffs just as we did right before the Great Depression. Rather than accepting immigrants with different foods, customs, dress, languages, and religions — we are now going to “hold on to what we have” and try to prevent any further evolution. In the case of American football, the prevent defense sometimes works. In the case of past civilizations that tried to isolate themselves, it hasn’t and it won’t. 

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This is not to say that America (or any other country) should right now have “open borders” and let everyone in for every purpose. Nor should a tennis player hit every shot with all their might. Nor should a football team try the riskiest possible plays at every turn. All systems need to strike a balance among replication of what works, providing defense of what one has and exploring what is new and different. That is what nature does. Every generation “replicates” aspects of the previous generation but every generation must also explore new directions. Life does this through sexual selection, mutation, and cross over. 

This balance plays out in career as well. You need to decide for yourself how much and what kinds of risks to take. When I obtained my doctorate in experimental psychology, for example, it would have been relatively un-risky in many ways to get a tenure-track faculty position. Instead, I chose managing a research project on the psychology of aging at Harvard Med School. To be sure, this is far less than the risk that some people take when; e.g., joining “Doctors without borders” or sinking all their life savings (along with all the life savings of their friends and relatives) into a start-up. 

At the time, I was married and had three small children. Under these circumstances, I would not have felt comfortable having no guaranteed income. On the other hand, I was quite confident that I could write a grant proposal to continue to get funded by “soft money.” Indeed, I did write such a proposal along with James Fozard and Nancy Waugh who were at once my colleagues, my bosses, and my mentors. Our grant proposal was not funded or rejected but “deferred” and then it was deferred again. At that point, only one month of funding remained before I would be out of a job. I began to look elsewhere. In retrospect, we all realized it would have been much wiser to have a series of overlapping grants so that all of our “funding eggs” were never in one “funding agency’s basket.” 

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I began looking for other jobs and had a variety of offers from colleges, universities, and large companies. I chose IBM Research. As it turned out, by the way, our grant proposal was ultimately funded for three years, but we only found out after I had already committed to go to IBM. During this job search, I was struck by something else. My dissertation had been on problem solving but my “post-doc” was in the psychology of aging. So far as I could tell, this didn’t bother any of the interviewers in industry in the slightest. But it really freaked out some people in academia. It became clear that one was “expected” in academia, at least by many, that you would choose a specialty and stick with it. Perhaps, you need not do that during your entire academic career, but anything less than a decade smacked of dilettantism. At least, that was how it felt to me as an interviewee. By contrast, it didn’t bother the people who interviewed me at Ford or GM that I knew nothing more than the average person about cars and had never really thought about the human factors of automobiles. 

The industrial jobs paid more than the academic jobs and that played some part in my decision. The job at GM sounded particularly interesting. I would be “the” experimental psychologist in a small inter-disciplinary group of about ten people who were essentially tasked with trying to predict the future. The “team” included an economist, a mathematician, a social psychologist, and someone who looked for trends in word frequencies in newspapers. The year was 1973 and US auto companies were shocked and surprised to learn that their customers suddenly cared about gas mileage! These companies didn’t want to be shocked and surprised like that again. The assignment reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s fictional character in the Foundation Trilogy — Harry Seldon — who founded “psychohistory.” We had the chance to do it in “real life.” It sounded pretty exciting! 

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On the other hand, cars seemed to me to be fundamentally an “old” technology while computers were the wave of the future. It also occurred to me that a group of ten people from quite different disciplines trying to predict the future might sound very cool to me and apparently to the current head of research at GM, but it might seem far more dispensable to the next head of research. The IBM problem that I was to solve was much more fundamental. IBM saw that the difficulty of using computers could be a limiting factor in their future growth. I had had enough experience with people — and with computers — to see this as a genuine and enduring problem for IBM (and other computer companies); not as a problem that was temporary (such as the “oil crisis” appeared to be in the early 70’s). 

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There were a number of additional reasons I chose IBM. IBM Research’s population at the time showed far more diverse than that of the auto companies. None of them were very diverse when it came to male/female ratios. At least IBM Research did have people from many different countries working there and it probably helped their case that an IBM Researcher had just been awarded a Nobel Prize. Furthermore, the car company research buildings bored me; they were the typical rectangular prisms that characterize most of corporate America. In other words, they were nothing special. Aero Saarinen however, had designed the IBM Watson Research Lab. It sat like an alien black spaceship ready to launch humanity into a conceptual future. It was set like an onyx jewel atop the jade hills of Westchester. 

I had mistakenly thought that because New York City was such a giant metropolis, everything north of “The City” (as locals call it) would be concrete and steel for a hundred miles. But no! Westchester was full of cut granite, rolling hills, public parks of forests marbled with stone walls and cooled by clear blue lakes. My commute turned out to be a twenty minute, trafficless drive through a magical countryside. By contrast, since Detroit car companies at that time held a lot of political power, there was no public transportation to speak of in the area. Everyone who worked at the car company headquarters spent at least an hour in bumper to bumper traffic going to work and another hour in bumper to bumper traffic heading back home. In terms of natural beauty, Warren Michigan just doesn’t compare with Yorktown Heights, NY. Yorktown Heights even smelled better. I came for my interview just as the leaves began painting their autumn rainbow palette. Westchester roads even seemed more creative. They wandered through the land as though illustrative of Brownian motion, while Detroit area roads were as imaginative as graph paper. Northern Westchester county sports many more houses now than it did when I moved there in late 1973, but you can still see the essential difference from these aerial photos. 



The IBM company itself struck me as classy. It wasn’t only the Research Center. Everything about the company stated “first class.” Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a trivial decision. After grad school in Ann Arbor, a job in Warren kept me in the neighborhood I was familiar with. A job at Ford or GM meant I could visit my family and friends in northern Ohio much more easily as well as my colleagues, friends and professors at the U of M. The offer from IBM felt to me like an offer from the New York Yankees. Of course, going to a top-notch team also meant more difficult competition from my peers. I was, in effect, setting myself up to go head to head with extremely well-educated and smart people from around the world. 

You also need to understand that in 1973, I would be only the fourth Ph.D. psychologist in a building filled with physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers, and materials scientists. In other words, nearly all the researchers considered themselves to be “hard scientists” who delved in quantitative realms. This did not particularly bother me. At the time, I wanted very much to help evolve psychology to be more quantitative in its approach. And yet, there were some nagging doubts that perhaps I should have picked a less risky job in a psychology department. 

The first week at IBM, my manager, John Gould introduced me yet another guy named “John” —  a physicist whose office was near mine on aisle 19. This guy had something like 100 patents. A few days later, I overheard one of John’s younger colleagues in the hallway excitedly describing some new findings. Something like the following transpired: 

“John! John! You can’t believe it! I just got these results! We’re at 6.2 x 10 ** 15th!” 

His older colleague replied, “Really? Are you sure? 6.2 x 10 ** 15th?” 

John’s younger colleague, still bubbling with enthusiasm: “Yes! Yes! That’s right. You know. Within three orders of magnitude one way or the other!” 

I thought to myself, “three orders of magnitude one way or the other? I can manage that! Even in psychology!” I no longer suffered from “physics envy.” I felt a bit more confident in the correctness of my decision to jump into these waters which were awash with sharp-witted experts in the ‘hard’ sciences. It might be risky, but not absurdly risky.

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Of course, your mileage may differ. You might be quite willing to take a much riskier path or a less risky one. Or, maybe the physical location or how much of a commute is of less interest to you than picking the job that most advances your career or pays the most salary. There’s nothing wrong with those choices. But note what you actually feel. Don’t optimize in a sequence of boxes. That is, you might decide that your career is more important than how long your commute is. Fair enough. But there are limits. Imagine two jobs that are extremely similar and one is most likely a little better for your career but you have to commute two hours each way versus 5 minutes for the one that’s not quite so good for your career. Which one would you pick? 

In life beyond tennis and beyond football, one also has to realize that your assessment of risk is not necessarily your actual risk. Many people have chosen “sure” careers or “sure” work at an “old, reliable” company only to discover that the “sure thing” actually turned out to be a big risk. I recall, for example, reading an article in INC., magazine that two “sure fire” small businesses were videotape rental stores and video game arcades. Within a few years of that article, they were almost sure-fire losers. Remember Woolworths? Montgomery Ward?

At the time I joined IBM it was a dominant force in the computer industry. But there are no guarantees — not in career choices, not in tennis strategy, not in football strategy, not in playing the “prevent defense” when it comes to America. The irony of trying too hard to “play it safe” is illustrated this short story about my neighbor from Akron: 

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Wilbur’s Story

Wilbur’s dead. Died in Nam. And, the question I keep wanting to ask him is: “Did it help you face the real dangers? All those hours together we played soldier?”

Wilbur’s family moved next door from West Virginia when I was eleven. They were stupendously uneducated. Wilbur was my buddy though. We were rock-fighting the oaks of the forest when he tried to heave a huge toaster-oven sized rock over my head. Endless waiting in the Emergency Room. Stitches. My hair still doesn’t grow straight there. “Friendly fire.”

More often, we used wooden swords to slash our way through the blackberry and wild rose jungle of The Enemy; parry the blows of the wildly swinging grapevines; hide out in the hollow tree; launch the sudden ambush.

We matched strategy wits on the RISK board, on the chess board, plastic soldier set-ups. I always won. Still, Wilbur made me think — more than school ever did.

One day, for some stupid reason, he insisted on fighting me. I punched him once (truly lightly) on the nose. He bled. He fled crying home to mama. Wilbur couldn’t stand the sight of blood.

I guess you got your fill of that in Nam, Wilbur.

After two tours of dangerous jungle combat, he was finally to ship home, safe and sound, tour over — thank God!

He slipped on a bar of soap in the shower and smashed the back of his head on the cement floor.

Wilbur finally answers me across the years and miles: “So much for Danger, buddy,” he laughs, “Go for it!”

Thanks, Wilbur.



And, no, I will not be giving away the keys to the kingdom. Your days of fighting for freedom may be over. Mine have barely begun.

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Happy July 4th


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As we celebrate in America, let’s not forget that many people fought long and hard to gain our independence and then to keep it. Let’s honor them by making sure we keep our independence. It would be a shame to lose it on the battlefield…and even more of a shame to lose it to greed.


It would also be a good time to recall that America is not alone in the struggle against tyranny. Many other countries had to fight and win their independence – and in other cases, people are still fighting for their freedom.


As I mentioned before, I am temporarily suspending additions to the Pattern Language of ‘best practices’ in collaboration and teamwork and shifting to a different genre for a time. I’m still quite interested in collaboration and teamwork; I am interested in working together to learn from each other how to do that better. As I’ve tried to point out, while competition certainly has a place, both in nature and in human civilization, in human civilization, it needs to be done within an agreed upon framework. Otherwise, competition spins out of control into anarchy and violence. Of course, this has happened before in human history. This time, when our very lives depend on a global network of interconnectedness, anarchy will be worse than ever before. For now, however, I’ve listed most of the major Patterns I’ve run into. I will continue to elicit and look for additional relevant Patterns. If you think of one, please comment on the summary/index or email me at:



Meanwhile, I’ve decided to share a number of experiences from my career as a researcher and practitioner in psychology, AI, and the field of human-computer interaction/user experience. I will relate these as honestly and completely as I think useful. In some cases, I may use pseudonyms to avoid embarrassing anyone. Clearly, stories are told from my perspective, and others might remember things differently, if at all. 


The reasons for recounting these stories is basically threefold. First, studying a field such as psychology, or human-computer interaction is related to actually working in the field but not so much as you might think. For the most part, the errors I’ve made and the lessons that I’ve learned in the course of a long career are not primarily technical. The main lessons are socio-technical. Hopefully, people considering a career in a related field may learn from my mistakes. But aside from pointing out mistakes made, I hope to give a flavor for what it’s really like to work in the field. 


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Pattern Language Summary


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A fellow writer recently posted a story seed on Facebook: “The World is Made of Glass.” 


I immediately thought: “Indeed it is. And that glass can be extremely beautiful but it is also fragile. It is called ‘mutual trust.’ We live in a globally interconnected world that fundamentally depends on that mutual trust.” 

I recall that when I was eleven years old, if my friends and I saw a bottle on our travels, we would find a way to destroy it. Before we actually destroyed it, we would discuss the most fun method. Would we chuck stones at it? Or would take turns throwing it high in the air and wait for it to crash upon the ground? One thing we never discussed: whether or not smashing the bottle was a good idea. It never occurred to us that time and effort had gone into making the bottle. It never occurred to us that someone might come along and cut themselves or their bike tires on the broken glass. It never occurred to us that a shard of glass might go flying into someone’s cornea. 


Stupid. But I was eleven. Now, quite astoundingly, I find people who should be decades beyond knowing better want to break bottles just for the hell of it. They want to destroy the current network of agreements, treaties, compromises, supply chains, currency exchanges and replace it with … ? The goal of the pre-teen billionaires? An extremely divided society in which a very small number of people will hold all the wealth and all the power and control all the sources of information. Most people on earth will essentially be their slaves. It will be a world run by men, not laws. This “break everything and then grab all the pie for yourself” goal might succeed but I think a more likely outcome is the destruction of civilization. 

Suddenly realigning the nations of the nuclear-armed world when many of them will be headed by essentially authoritarian dictators is extremely dangerous in terms of beginning an atomic war. War and war-like rhetoric are standard tools for autocrats to consolidate their power. 


Even if atomic war is somehow avoided, billions of people could die. No, not millions. Billions. As I’ve mentioned before, most of us know how to survive and thrive in a particular context and we’ve become largely unaware of the extent to which the adaptive habits in our brains depend on our network of friends, family, and information sources. Not only will infrastructure and supply chains falter, fray, and fail; Anti-Patterns for collaboration will prevail over Patterns. This will make life more miserable but it will also make what people do far less efficient and effective as well. 

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I think anyone can do the necessary extrapolation. Becoming better at positive collaboration and increasing mutual trust will have two effects; at least, so I claim. First, there will be a local effect: whatever work you’re doing will become more pleasurable and effective. Second, there will also be a more global effect: you are providing a model of what works for others; you are also making them feel good about working with others; increasing their trust in each other and, to some extent, in their fellow humans. Better collaboration, teamwork, and cooperation can help prevent the destruction of our glass world. 


Needless to say, the world is hardly perfect. It does need to change. That can be done in a collaborative way that leaves people alive; respects individuals; protects important freedoms. Real improvements will not be made by isolating nations, by trade wars, by shooting wars, by reneging on signed agreements, by tearing families apart, by cruelty. 

And yet, there is reason for hope – and action. People around the world are interested in learning how to collaborate better. That’s one reason for hope!



Here is an index to the Patterns and Anti-Patterns that have been presented in this blog. 

Special Spaces & Wonderful Places introduces the concept of a Pattern Language.

“Who Speaks for Wolf?” reminds us to seek the input of all stakeholders and relevant areas of expertise before making a decision.

“Reality Check” reminds us that we cannot settle for ersatz measures; at least periodically, we must make sure we understand what is really happening.

Small Successes Early suggests that before launching into a complex project, especially when strangers must collaborate, it is useful to first tackle a smaller, shorter term project so people can build mutual trust.

Small Successes Early: Metaphor & Fable is an experiment in additional, potentially useful new parts of a Pattern. Although they seemed useful in this particular Pattern, I am not certain that they should be a normal part of a Pattern.

Radical Collocation suggests that for some types of complex problems it is important to put everyone together in the same space. Particularly relevant when the structure of the problem is not completely known ahead of time.

Meaningful Initiation can be a significant source of group cohesion but if done poorly, it can become an excuse for people to act cruelly. In that case, it can backfire.

The Iroquois Rule of Six suggests that we do not glom onto the first interpretation that comes to mind when it comes to interpreting the behavior of others.

Greater Gathering is a way for people to feel connected to the larger organization that they belong to – over and above those they come into frequent contact with.

Context-Setting Entrance allows people to know how they should act once inside a physical or virtual place.

Bohm Dialogue is a way of relating non-competitively. Rather than “making points” to “prove” one’s pre-existing beliefs, people work together to build a joint understanding.

Build from Common Ground – Rather than trying to be overly “efficient” by jumping right into “resolving” differences, it works much better to begin by establishing common ground in terms of experiences, likes, values, hobbies, concerns, etc.

Use Thoughtful Group Feedback Structures and Processes in order to provide useful information in a way that maximizes its likelihood of actually being used.

Indian Wells Tennis Tournament is not a Pattern per se. The purpose of this interlude is to provide an example of complex collaboration. Often, when we use a service, buy a product, or attend an event, we fail to think about how much complex collaboration is necessary to make it happen.

Negotiate from Needs, not Positions. Often, creative solutions to negotiations can be discovered by working together to understand the situation from each other’s perspective.

Give a Sympathetic Reading. If you work together with others in good faith, it pays to do your best to interpret what others say in a way that makes sense, if you can find one.

Positive Deviance. There is always variation in the way people do things. In a large enough population, it often happens that a few people may have solved a problem that faces everyone. That information, often implicit, can improve the lives of the entire population.

Music binds people together. This post explores some of the possible reasons.

Narrative Insight Method describes techniques for gather valuable knowledge from experts through the use of storytelling.

Fostering Group Cohesion through Common Narratives is another storytelling technique: in this case, one focuses on building and disseminating stories that illustrate common values.

Fostering Community Learning via Transformed Narratives. This helps solve a dilemma. For organizational learning, it’s crucial to learn from people’s mistakes. Ordinarily though, mistakes are not just used for learning but to bar one from advancement, raises, and the esteem of one’s colleagues.

Speak Truth to Power says that those in power must hear the truth rather than simply what will make them happy. (See also Anti-Pattern: Kill the Messenger).

Find and Cultivate Allies in complex organizations. Often, necessary allies may not be immediately obvious from official org charts.

Support Both Flow & Breakdown if you want to avoid systems that crash catastrophically.

Use Diversity as a Resource. This can be especially useful in finding and formulating problems, generating ideas, synthesizing ideas, looking for bugs, finding creative ways to market and sell products, etc.

The Day From Hell: Why Does Anyone Care?  A fantasy of how the simplest most mundane things could become nightmares of conflict without cooperation and collaboration. (Not a Pattern – a motivation for a Pattern Language.)

Collaboration Patterns: A Pattern Language for Creative Collaborations. This is a pointer to a so-far unrelated attempt to build a Pattern Language for Collaboration.

Anti-Pattern: Power Trumps Good This is the first of a series of ANTI-Patterns; that is, things to be avoided. Might does not make right; but when people act as though it is, the most powerful rather than the most competent calls the shots.

Anti-Pattern: Gratuitous Push Down This Anti-Pattern describes the behavior that some people engage in of useless and unnecessary cruelty. They push people down for no reason.

Anti-Pattern: Kiss Up; Kick Down People obsessed with power for its own sake will tend to be very solicitous who have more power and show no respect for those whom they oversee

Anti-Pattern: Conjure a Common Enemy This is a common trick of tyrants. They will point first to some very unpopular group and exaggerate its influence, power, or ill intent. In some cases the “enemy” can be completely imaginary. Eventually, the “common enemy” is anyone who disagrees with the tyrant.

Anti-Pattern: Taking Credit & Spreading Blame. Another common tyrant trick is to take credit for everything good even when they had nothing to do with it and to spread blame on others even if they had nothing to do with the bad outcome.

Anti-Pattern: Kill the Messenger This is the opposite of a Learning Organization. Tyrants want to “kill the messenger” because they bring bad news.

Anti-Pattern: Cascading Betrayal Since the organization built by a tyrant does not rely on affection or competence, once power starts to crumble, people will begin to desert the tyrant. Viewed from a different perspective, some may simply decide to do what’s right rather than what’s easiest or most profitable.

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Anti-Pattern: Kill the Messenger


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This may be the last in the series of socio-technical Anti-Patterns (that is, things you want to avoid doing). Although I do think there is value in the Anti-Patterns (or I wouldn’t have bothered), I think the emphasis should be on the Patterns. It’s also personally depressing to write about Anti-Patterns right now because every time I write about how a particular type of behavior is to be avoided, it happens in real life! In abundance! Without apology! 

This is why I also included the “what if” story about tennis. I really think people do not quite see how utterly dependent the vast majority of us are on complex, globe-spanning interactions which are, at bottom, based on mutual trust.

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Once we erode that trust, literally millions will die even if war is avoided – which itself seems a remote possibility. It is a bit, I suppose, like the proverbial story about fish not “realizing” they are in water because it’s all they’ve ever known. People exist and thrive because of this network of trust. But they have no realization that it’s even there, let alone that it’s crucial. Once these networks are destroyed, they will be most likely be replaced by much simpler, less flexible ones based on power. There is a limit to how large these can grow because when possible, everyone will realize that such a network only really benefits the person at the top. So, they escape if they are able. Such power-based networks are also far less capable of innovation than ones based on trust, expertise and experience, fair incentives, the free flow of information. And, one of the main deficiencies in power-based networks is illustrated by the following Anti-Pattern.  

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Kill the Messenger

In the context of a crucial issue or task, important information is provided to the Person in Power: information that is critical in making the right decision or designing the proper course of action. When this information is delivered to the Person in Power (here abbreviated “PP”), they hear something they don’t like. So, they literally or figuratively, kill the messenger. 

At first blush, this Anti-Pattern seems insane. Of course, it is unfair and unethical to kill the messenger, but how does it benefit the PP who does the killing? Here’s the surprising answer: It doesn’t! Not in the least! He or she is encouraging people to avoid providing him with crucial information. It doesn’t benefit PP, but it does benefits his or her Id-Baby. Some people would say it benefits his or her ego, but that is not really in keeping with Freud’s original meaning of the words Ego, Id, and Superego. Or, to say it another way, killing the messenger is not good for the PP’s body or the PP’s long-term prospects; in other words, not for the adult PP (if there is one). Killing the messenger is an infantile reaction of the inner child who believes everything must be the way they want it to be. 

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There is, however, another reason – an also insane reason – for the PP to kill the messenger. He is now free to discredit the messenger. This in turn, if carried out as a policy against the Message  Sent by Messenger (here abbreviated “MSM”), people will begin to doubt the MSM and rely only on the PP for the “truth.” This reason shows a somewhat longer time-span of attention. After all, if people have a lot of experience with MSM that turns out to be quite useful information, it will take some time for the PP to destroy credibility of the MSM. But, it is still quite limited thinking; perhaps not a 2 year old, but more like a spoiled 13-year old from one of the more prestigious Prep Schools. Plans must change and we must be open to it. So, for the PP to destroy sources of potentially useful information to the PP, is still insane. 


(Editorial Aside:  And, I must confess, I am totally bewildered that we while we shouldn’t and wouldn’t let an insane person drive a school bus, we would have one armed with nuclear weapons. Well, more than one.)

In various organizations and contexts, the specifics of Killing the Messenger vary as well as the degree to which it happens. “Killing the messenger” figuratively can be partial. For example, a company will likely fill its website with positive news about the company. They probably take a similar tack with employees. If they are required by law to tell you about a drug’s side-effects, they will do it while a beautiful woman in a white dress dances carelessly and weightlessly through a field of daisies and while somewhere magic elves are playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Who wouldn’t want those side effects?! And, yet, that same company might be quite scrupulous about the accuracy of some of the data it depends on for its operational efficiency. So, it can be a mixed bag. At least, it can be a mixed bag for a normal organization or a normal person. 


At one extreme, we might have some sort of highly enlightened guru who would immediately take in each new moment without judgement. Most people may initially have a negative reaction to bad news. They may not believe the messenger. They might say, “What? What did you say? No! You must be joking!” 

In some cases, even a normal person might lash out at a messenger. I can see that if a member of the Armed Services came to your door to tell you that your spouse had been killed, you might scream at the messenger. But, if you’re more than a very small child, you realize it wasn’t their fault. 


But no sane adult would block out potentially crucial information that should inform their critical decisions. A sane adult would seek out additional sources of information; cross-check them against each other; surround himself with smart, competent people honest enough to tell the truth, even when it “hurts.” Without the truth to work with, a PP is just a Powerless Puppet to their own Id — or, likely, someone else’s.

Perhaps you have been the recipient of some variant of “Kill the Messenger”? Or observer?


 I will post another Pattern Language Overview that includes the newer Patterns and Anti-Patterns – with clickable links. After that, I plan to move in a quite different direction. 

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Anti-Pattern: Taking Credit & Spreading Blame.


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Think back to the worst boss you ever had or ever observed. Maybe one stands out immediately. Or, maybe you had two so it’s hard to say which was worse. If you have been very lucky and had reasonable bosses throughout your life, then, maybe you can think back to a very nasty teacher. In either case, I’m hoping you can think of someone who was not only strict, but pig-headed, arbitrary, unfair, and liked to demean employees (or students) in front of everyone. Not only that, they would take credit for the work of others and blame others when they had actually made the mistake themselves. 


These are the sorts of people who practice the Anti-Patterns that I’ve been writing about lately. And it occurs to me that most people have had some experience with something similar to fascism in its mildest form: having an “intolerable” boss or teacher. It’s a very mild cousin, but it  is a cousin. 

The major difference is that if you have a horrible boss: a bully, a liar, a person who uses their position to hide their incompetence and blame it on others, it bothers you at work and you may lie awake thinking about it, but you do have other things in your life. You don’t have to have it affect your personal life; it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have fun playing a sport or dancing or singing. But actually living under fascism is a 24×7 business. Your bosses now are in charge of everything in your life that they want to bother with being in charge of. In the post below, I describe another one of the Anti-Life Anti-Patterns that they will tend to use: Taking Credit and Spreading Blame. 



Taking Credit and Spreading Blame. 

The basic idea of this Anti-Pattern is simple. The “boss” controls information into and out of their group. They are in a position to present the work of the group to higher management. The workers under the boss, in some corporate cultures will have little recourse when they are mistreated or their actions are misrepresented. If someone comes up with a good idea, for example, it may be ridiculed by a boss who knows less. Let’s say, for instance, a member of a research group at a camera/film company comes up with the idea of an electronic camera, the boss may well call the idea ridiculous. If it later turns out that the camera/film company goes out of business due to competition from electronic camera companies, the boss who originally pooh-poohed the idea will now claim that they were all in favor but that they had asked the employee who originally thought of it to look into it. That employee had come back with such a negative assessment of the market, that they had all convinced the boss not to pursue it. This is an example of “Spreading the Blame.” 

On the other hand, if the boss had decided to pursue it and it had made the company successful, that kind of boss would lead everyone to believe that it had been their idea all along. They might even go so far as to discredit, transfer, or fire the employee who had actually thought of it. One might be tempted to think the “truth would out” and it might, but the boss has more control over how the group and the individuals within it are perceived than the employees do.

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In an organization without any form of checks and balances, a tyrannical boss may gain a stellar reputation among higher management by the use of this tactic. This may result in promotions and an ever-expanding scope of power with which to ruin people’s lives. If you can convince the people above you that you never make a mistake yourself because you convincingly blame others; and you manage to take credit for everything that happens in your organization (and possibly even credit for some of what happens even in neighboring organizations) then you will gain more control over the information flow. 

Ultimately, the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization suffers when Anti-Patterns such as Taking Credit and Spreading Blame are employed. People will begin to see little reason to work hard or imaginatively since the boss will take the credit. People who gain pleasure from friendly and collegial interactions will work somewhere else if they possibly can. Similarly, people who are primarily motivated at work by the work itself and doing it well will tend not to thrive under such a boss and will also go work somewhere else as soon as the opportunity arises. However, people who like to be told what to do, and enjoy power themselves, might collaborate with a boss who uses Anti-Patterns because the employee may feel as though helping the boss is the best way to open a promotion for themselves as well. 

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What “Anti-Patterns” have you observed in a boss, petty bureaucrat, teacher? 


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Anti-Pattern: Cascading Betrayal


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Cascading Betrayal


A very interesting little book that I recommend is Jane Jacobs’s Systems of Survival. In it she argues that there are two systems of ethics and morality: an older one, the “Guardian Syndrome” whose values include: Shun trading; exert prowess; be obedient and disciplined; adhering to tradition, respecting hierarchy, being loyal, deceiving for the sake of the task, making rich use of leisure; being ostentatious; and taking vengeance. Most of us might recognize these from history and stories about the Middle Ages in Europe but many other kingdoms and empires of earlier times also valued such things more than most of us do today. On the other hand, a newer system of values has been developing since the Renaissance. In the “Commerce Syndrome,” people tend to value things such as shunning force, competing, being efficient, being open to inventiveness and novelty, being honest, collaborating easily with strangers and aliens, dissenting for the sake of the task, respecting contracts, investing for productive purposes. 


In modern societies worldwide, both systems are at play and they can often be in conflict. For instance, you have friends that you feel loyalty to (Guardian Syndrome) and you work for a corporation which asks you to sign a contract that says you will not steal from the corporation and that you will report anyone who does (Commerce Syndrome). You observe your good friend taking supplies from the company storeroom for personal use. You ask the friend to return the goods but they say, “Oh, come on. The company makes billions. They can afford it. It’s just our little secret.” You can’t dissuade your friend. Now, the conflict in values causes you a conflict. Do you “betray” your friend and honor your contract? Or do you betray your contract and collude with your friend? 

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Within American society (the one I happen to be most familiar with), these values are not evenly distributed. For instance, Silicon Valley seems quite centered on the “Commerce Syndrome” while small towns, sports teams, and the Catholic Church, for example, seem more centered on the “Guardian Syndrome.” 

People whose values are almost totally aligned with the “Guardian Syndrome” will tend to stay loyal to their boss, leader, team, political party, even when the boss, leader, team or political party does something stupid, cruel, unethical, or illegal. For a time, people in positions of great power can keep their power through, for example, the dispensing of favors, defining agreed upon untruths, or taking vengeance on the disloyal. 

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Such a system is always somewhat fragile as demonstrated by the constant stream of rebellions, crusades, and wars in the Middle Ages. A state or organization based purely on the “Guardian Syndrome” is even more difficult today. If one tries to keep to a pure “Guardian System” in the midst of a highly interconnected and interdependent world, it will fail sooner and more spectacularly. 

One issue is that it is no longer possible for people not to be exposed to the actual truth. Lying to a populace in which only 1% of the population could read and write was fairly easy. Trying to do it in the computerized and recorded world of today is nearly impossible. Some people will remain loyal and refuse to call out the Emperor for having no clothes. But someone will. And, it will be caught on tape. And, the tape will be shown to vast numbers of other people who have no loyalty to the Emperor. They will all see he’s naked and have no compunction about saying so. 


As a result, a modern “Emperor” will find it difficult to keep all but the most fanatic fans from dismissing his attempts to control through politics and pageantry. The Medieval mechanisms of dispensing favors and wreaking havoc via vengeance will largely prove ineffective. Once such an Emperor begins to lose power, more and more people will begin to realize that they are much better off to “play by the rules” of the Commerce Syndrome. As a result, people who might have stayed loyal to the death to the Emperor will instead begin to defect. As more and more people defect, this will further weaken the Emperor’s power base and make it more likely for even more people to defect. 


Naturally, the Emperor will attempt to use whatever power they have left to prevent defections, but in our modern interdependent and interconnected world, this is increasingly difficult. Most modern countries — and their leaders — realize that material prosperity in the 21st Century depends on many of the values of the Commerce Syndrome. A society that tries to remain “closed” like North Korea, for instance, will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to invention, comfort, prosperity, and the happiness of its citizens. What little resources such a country does have will be increasingly funneled toward weapons of war, security, police, prisons, and the suppression of truth. While these measures may serve to consolidate the power of a modern emperor in the short term, in the long term, too many people will have too little physical comforts to feel much loyalty to the emperor. Support will continue to erode and eventually everyone will see beneath the invisible clothes. An early signal of such a collapse will be a cascade of betrayals. 

By contrast, in a modern state, loyalty is earned through such virtues as fairness, competence, innovation, and collaboration. In other words, people dispense loyalty on the basis of what people do, not because of what they promise to do and not on the basis of some bogus claim to royalty based on how and where they were born. Cascading betrayal is typically a symptom of an attempt to revert to an earlier state of human social evolution. It is another descriptive short-hand Anti-Pattern. It can be avoided by allowing feelings of loyalty to grow naturally from watching someone in a role of power make and keep promises over time and by watching them do what is in the best interest of the State; not by watching them take actions which mainly enrich the emperor. 


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Anti-Pattern: Conjure a Common Enemy


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Conjure a Common Enemy


Of course, it is quite a commonly used technique among leaders to arouse people to work together by pointing to something that they all want. For example, leaders may use visions of a better future to motivate diverse people to work together to build a bridge, say, or find a cure for cancer or to put a person on the moon. And, sometimes, as when an army stands on the border about to cross into a country, the leader may call upon everyone to work to defeat that enemy. 

The difference between working together to create something and working together to destroy something is quite palpable. Working to create something tends to make people feel happy and behave and think creatively. Working to destroy an enemy tends to arouse fear and anger. It is stressful and stress tends to foster doing the same thing rather than doing something new. At the end of the day, when people work together to build something good, that may provide positive value for a long time to come. When people work together to destroy something, they feel good temporarily, but what they have at the end of the day is, at best, nothing. 

I claim nothing is the best long-term outcome for destroying a common enemy. This may strike you as odd because, after all, if you defeat an enemy, you might be able to enslave their children or sexually abuse some of the survivors. You may also be able to steal some of their wealth. I still claim that these “benefits” are worse than nothing as an outcome because they will tend to corrupt and demean everyone involved in the effort. The gold that is extracted from people’s teeth and given to you as the spoils of war is not really a benefit. The gold may not tarnish. But you will. And so will your children.

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Note however, that the title of this Anti-Pattern is not: “Fighting a Common Enemy.” I chose “Conjuring a Common Enemy” quite deliberately. These are not enemies that are about to take your life and property. These are enemies conjured out of thin air, or more accurately, out of the disappointments, fears, humiliations, and angers that people have suffered. The Anti-leader essentially claims that any failure you have experienced and all that attendant negative emotion you felt is not your fault. The disappointments of the past are not due to your own faulty actions, bad choices, bad luck, or being born into unfortunate circumstances. No, the Anti-leader proclaims that your illness, unemployment, lack of wealth, lack of a loving relationship  – they are all caused by an enemy. 


The Anti-leader wants to make it really easy to distinguish these conjured common enemies from everyone else. They might therefore choose dress, age, gender, race, or location as “magic markers.” They are “magic” because in real life, all one finds are, at best, tenuous correlations between the markers and actual behavior. But in the conjured enemy, they are all alike. It is a magic marker of ability, motivation, or behavior. If it is too hard to tell enemies apart from the “good guys,” the Anti-leader will mark the conjured enemy. Jews might be required to wear yellow stars. The “good guys” might all wear brown shirts or red hats while they “spontaneously” destroy things. 

In some cases, leaders try to cast inanimate and abstract things as “enemies.” Thus, we have the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Drugs.” While this framing is not so nasty and despicable as a “War on Immigrants” or a “War on Jews” or a “War on Blacks,” it is still an ineffective framing. Instead of a “War” on “Poverty” it would make more sense to build a bridge to prosperity, to my way of thinking. A “War on Drugs” is just plain silly. It would be laughable if it hadn’t cost so much money ($ 1,000,000,000,000 – one trillion dollars and counting) and ruined so many lives (many more than drug misuse and abuse has). Among the important questions that a “War on Drugs” glosses over are: “What is a ‘drug’?”, “Isn’t it really drug abuse that you are against?” “Why are some powerful and addictive drugs like caffeine, alcohol, Ritalin, and nicotine deemed okay while others like marijuana deemed not okay?”

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Photo by Michael Fischer on

One problem with blaming all your troubles on a conjured enemy is that, even if you do destroy this “enemy,” you’ll be left with the same set of issues that you had before. Stemming immigration to the USA in 2018, will not land you a job in 2018 or in 2019 nor in 2020. Making homosexual marriage illegal will not improve your own marriage in the slightest. Making it illegal for Buddhists to practice their religion will not make you a better Jew; making Islam illegal will not make you a better Christian; making Christianity illegal will not make you a better Hindu. 

There is also a more systemic and pernicious problem with Conjuring a Common Enemy. Eventually, a society, business, or team who never faces the real causes of their failures will never improve and will be relatively disadvantaged in any competition with similar organizations who do face facts. In addition, once people are in the habit of blaming others for their troubles, they become ever more pushed into an “us vs. them” mentality; they will be unable to see win/win solutions for what they really are.


They may well eventually turn on their Anti-leaders the way they did on Mussolini. Since the enemies are conjured, it is also necessary to spin an illusion about them. This was fairly easy to do in ancient times or in Medieval times. With mass media and the Internet, one cannot simply assert some absurdity and have it go unchallenged. The Anti-leader will therefore tend to destroy people’s access to sources of information that might challenge his or her lies; e.g., TV news, newspapers, websites, etc. and instead try to fill people’s minds with so much doubt that they will be tempted to make the “easiest” decision; that is, simply to believe the liar and their lies.  

Comments welcome; e.g., agreements, disagreements, references, examples, suggested Patterns or Anti-Patterns. 


Here are some of my books. Perhaps I should do the next one on Pattern Language? 

The Winning Weekend Warrior focuses on strategy, tactics, and the ‘mental game’ for all sports as well as business and life. The Winning Weekend Warrior

Turing’s Nightmares depicts possible scenarios in the world filled with Artificial Intelligence. What might that mean for humanity? Turing’s Nightmares

Fit in Bits is for anyone with a desire to stay in shape but an extremely hectic, busy, or unpredictable life. Fit in Bits suggests many ways to work various exercises into other daily activities. My own favorite is to dance while cooking or washing and drying dishes. 

Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Reflection. Actually, this one is related to and inspired by the Pattern: Build from Common Ground. In Tales I recount early memories and then relate them my current values and what that says to me about contemporary issues in society. I invite you to take a little of my journey, not because it is your journey, but precisely because it isn’t. Therefore, we have observed different things and then come perhaps to observe the same things differently. It is simply my recollections and reflections – not the “correct” ones. Tales from an American Childhood

All are available on Amazon from links on my Author Page.