Indian Wells Tennis Tournament


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This blog post is a short break from my attempts to build a “Pattern Language” of best practices for teamwork, collaboration, coordination, and cooperation. I wish to re-iterate why I feel the enterprise is important. I have been attending the  Indian Wells tennis tournament and watched some amazing matches. While it’s tempting to write about the matches, I will leave that aside. What struck me about the tournament, aside from the athleticism and grit of the players, was the widespread and effective teamwork, collaboration, coordination, and cooperation that the tournament represents. This is obviously related to the Pattern Language because it gives an example of what can result from excellent teamwork and cooperation. In other words, this tennis tournament is just one illustration of why it matters.


It’s nicer in some ways to sit in your living room and watch sporting events on TV. You don’t have to deal with glaring hot sun at noon or chilly winds in the evening. You can get up to hit the bathroom any time you want and snacks are right there in the kitchen. However, you do not get a feel for just how incredible is the athletic ability of the players nor the velocity and precision of the shots when you watch on TV. More important in the context of cooperation is that when you watch on TV, every time there is a break in the action, you are treated to commercials. When you are at the actual venue, however, there is also ample opportunity for observing a little bit of the incredible collaboration and teamwork that an event like this requires. Even at the venue, all you see is the snow that dusts the surface of that tenth of the iceberg that rises above the ocean. With a little imagination, you can get an inkling of how much more collaboration must be required that you do not see.


The reason I want to dwell on this for just a little is that collaboration and cooperation permeate a healthy society. Indeed, widespread collaboration and cooperation are critical for society’s existence. Yet, it is easy to take cooperation for granted like the air we breathe. People like me, who have lived almost their lives in peaceful and kind circumstances, may easily forget that it need not be so. People have lived in circumstances of war, oppression, and slavery. We should never take cooperation for granted. Even in a very peaceful circumstances, there are many screw-ups in collaboration and while we notice the screw-ups when they affect us directly, we tend not to realize the vast interconnected threads of collaboration and cooperation that we rely on every day.


Let’s return then to the Indian Wells tennis tournament and examine just a few of the many collaborative aspects. First, there are the professional athletes, of course. Let’s return to this later, to understand a little of the massive cooperation required for there to be professional athletes in general and what’s required in cooperation to make any particular athlete operate at their amazing level of skill. What other roles are there? Possibly coaches, trainers, officials, and the ball boys and ball girls come to mind. It’s quite likely that if you watch tennis (or any other sport) on TV, one of the most salient roles is that of the TV announcers. They are a major part of most people’s experience of pro sports. Yet, when you are actually at the venue, they are relatively invisible. If we watch TV, we are cooperating in making the TV announcer a major part of our sports experience.


At the venue itself, there are many other obvious roles. There are police assigned to the area. There are hundreds of volunteers who help people park, answer questions, check bags and check tickets. There are vendors selling various wares as well as offering up a variety of food items. This is all much more obvious when you attend a sports event in person. But the cooperation doesn’t stop there. How do the clothing and food get to the venue? How are we able to eat food that is grown far away and sometimes packaged? Where did the recipes come from? Why do people share recipes? At this point in our cultural evolution, you can attend an event in Southern California and enjoy some excellent Japanese food at Nobu. Japanese speak Japanese. And Japan is more than 5000 miles away. So, somehow, through a giant network of collaborative and cooperative relationships, people in Southern California are able to produce delicious meals that reflect a cuisine developed in a different culture with a different language. Of course, Japanese is not the only cuisine represented at the venue. There are hundreds of options that originated elsewhere.

There is also clothing on offer, much of it designed in one place, manufactured in another place, and shipped via complex supply chains. You can buy it with a credit card. But how does that work? You guessed it. It works because of other giant networks of cooperation and trust. Yes, it’s true that some people steal credit cards and there are elaborate systems to minimize losses but even those elaborate systems work on trust.


The venue comprises parking, stadiums, parks, practice courts, with running water and electricity, working toilets, wheelchair access, and gates for crowd control. Again, the existence of the venue requires widespread cooperation among various levels of government, financial institutions, tennis organizations, volunteer organizations, and fans. But it isn’t even just contemporary cooperation that’s involved. These kinds of large scale venues go back in our history thousands of years. We’ve been collaboratively building best practices in city planning, architecture, crowd control, with many idea exchanges across cultures. We must remember that, by and large, the fans also cooperate. They don’t simply mob the gates to crash in without paying. The vast majority of fans are quiet during actual play, sit in their assigned seats, get up to allow others to pass and so on. This kind of cooperation also depends, in part, on widespread public education in how to be civil.


Let’s return for a moment now to consider that our society has professional athletes. Some people make a career out of playing a sport extremely well. But playing the game extremely well does not, in and of itself, enable professional athletics to exist. There have to be fans both at the venue and watching TV who pay, either with dollars or with taxes or with their attention to commercials. There are organizations who administer the sport. There are, in this example, thousands of coaches and tennis venues to develop the sport and spot prodigies early who then receive additional coaching and training. There are ranking systems and systems to seed players in tournaments. There are manufacturers who make tennis balls and tennis racquets which have evolved over time to allow more elegant play which pushes the game toward more extremes of human performance. This kind of evolution of artifacts does not happen “automatically.” It too requires communication and cooperation.


Indian Wells is just one event in one sport. If you dig beneath the surface just a little, you will see that nearly everything on the planet is the result of thousands of years of mainly cooperative enterprise. Of course, the players compete. They try their hardest to win. But they try to win within an agreed upon set of rules and regulations. If no-one followed the rules, there would be nothing very interesting to watch. If you’ve seen one bar fight, you’ve seen them all. There is no elegance and no beauty in watching thugs slug it out and waste time and resources. I dwell on this because it is critical to keep in mind that having a decent society that helps people thrive depends on having cooperation, teamwork, collaboration, and coordination. The individual human brain may be relatively large compared to an ape’s. But what really sets us apart is not our individual intelligence. Abandon a baby with a perfectly good brain into a forest by themselves and, if they survive at all, they will not behave much differently from an ape or a raccoon. They may scrabble for food and water, but they will not end up building a tennis court or constructing a tennis racquet.


It’s not turtles all the way down. It’s trust. It’s cooperation. That’s what makes us human. If we just grab everything for ourselves and lie about it, it subverts the very foundation of human life. Our human nature is to control our competition to acting within agreed upon boundaries for the good of all. If we forget that, we are not “lowering ourselves” to the level of wild animals. We are way below that. We are like a wild cat who refuses to use its hearing and fast reflexes to hunt. We are like a redwood tree who refuses to use the sun’s rays. We are like a deer in the forest who refuses to forage but instead expects other deer to bring them food. Willfully ignoring that we are a social species; intentionally lying in order to gain advantage to ourselves will never help create a bigger pie. In the short term, it can get you a bigger piece. But the cost is that you despoil what it means to be human. Grabbing all you can for yourself subverts the very essence of what makes humanity such a successful species. This has always been true throughout human history. Now, however, cooperation is more vital than ever both because we are on the brink of destroying the ecosystem we depend on for life itself and because we have even more brutally destructive weapons than ever before. We have cooperated through much of our human history. Now, we need to do it even more intelligently and more consistently — or face extinction. The earth doesn’t need us. But we need the earth. And, each other.


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Use Thoughtful Group Feedback Structures and Processes


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Use Thoughtful Group Feedback Structures & Processes


The idea for this Pattern comes mainly from my experience as a Fellow at the Institute for Rational Living. In my two-year Fellowship in Rational-Emotive Therapy (a variant of cognitive, emotive, & behavioral therapy developed by Albert Ellis), I saw about 6-8 individual clients a week as well as running a weekly group therapy session. I participated in a two hour group supervision session with a more experienced senior therapist each week and received very useful feedback. In addition, I participated in several “Pattern Workshops” at various SIGCHI conferences where a similar though slightly different structure of feedback was used. I also have had experiences teaching, tutoring, and providing feedback on scientific papers and grant proposals. These all overwhelmingly positive experiences on the whole. Like most of us, however, I’ve also been subject to a variety of diatribes, harangues, and reviews which were useless as learning experiences.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas March 6-8, 2018



Hamburger feedback. Writer’s Workshop.


Life is complicated! The human brain is finite. We all make mistakes. Mistakes provide excellent opportunities to learn. Sometimes, we can learn all on our own, but in complex situations, even when we know we have failed, we often cannot tell why or how to improve. More experienced people can provide feedback to help us learn more effectively and efficiently. However, there are many different ways to point out errors and suggest improvements. Some of these ways provide much better learning experiences than others. Therefore, in providing feedback, choose a feedback structure and process designed to maximize the opportunity for learning and minimize negative emotions that can interfere with learning.


When it comes to complex behavior in nearly every human domain (e.g., playing tennis or golf, writing a grant proposal or scientific paper, writing a short story, acting in a play, or providing therapy, cooking an omelet, drawing a portrait) there are many ways to go wrong. Generally speaking, people who are just learning a field know when they fail but often they cannot tell what they did wrong or how to improve. To the expert, the error is sometimes obvious. Since the expert teacher has seen the same mistakes made by over and over, it is easy to become impatient. The teacher may forget that even though they have pointed out this same error a thousand times in their career, it may only be the first time it has been pointed out to this particular learner. Even if it’s the tenth or twentieth time, it’s human nature for the learner to “revert” to a bad habit.

Furthermore, as Tversky and Kahnemann pointed out, coaches and teachers may find themselves “drifting” over time toward more and more emphasis on negative criticism rather than praise for a job well done. The reason posited by Tversky and Kahnemann is “regression to the mean.” Basically, performance in anything varies somewhat randomly over time. This random variation can be fairly large even as performance on the whole is improving. If a coach or teacher says something positive after an unusually good performance, chances are that the next performance will be somewhat worse. On the other hand, if a coach or teacher says something negative after a particularly bad performance, regression to the mean says that the next performance will usually be somewhat better. Over time, coaches and teachers tend to be punished for praising good performance and rewarded for criticizing bad performances. (I expanded on this idea to our self-criticism in “Why do I Self-Down? Because I’m an Idiot?”). Both praise and criticism can provide informative feedback. However, they are quite different in terms of the emotional impact that they make. Except for the very least self-motivated students, criticism will tend to provide too much stress for optimal learning. The newer or less intuitive the thing being learned is, the lower is the optimal level of stress.

In addition to the emotional impact, there is another problem with criticism. It often tends to fixate the attention of the person on the wrong things making further errors even more likely. If a golf coach, for example, says, “I’ve told you a hundred times! Don’t life your head up while you putt! You keep missing left because you keep lifting your head up, lifting your head up, lifting your head up!” Well! Even apart from making the student more nervous (which will make it harder to learn), by focusing on the student’s error, the coach has put it firmly in their student’s thought pattern: “Putt coming up. Don’t LIFT UP YOUR HEAD.”


Even without the social and emotive element, providing feedback that is really useful can be difficult. In the case of putting, for instance, you may miss a putt left for many reasons: you might have misread the slope; you might have misread the grain; you might have been aiming the putter blade left; you may have hit the ball of the center of the putting blade; you might have hit the grass behind the ball; you might have swung the putter on a curved path (and, indeed, one cause of that could be lifting up your head too early); there are imperceptible imperfections in the green; you might not have noticed the extremely brisk wind. Even a marvelously skilled instructor is going to have difficulty knowing which of these many reasons is in fact the case.


Complex skills require long training. Generally speaking, people will get much further in any field of human endeavor if they have formal or informal training and teaching in that field. The more complex the field, the more training is required. The better the coaching, training, teaching, or mentoring the student has along the way, the better will be their ultimate level of skill, other things being equal. Teaching is often done in classroom settings with only one teacher and many students. If the teacher does criticize a student, it is generally done in front of the whole class. The teacher seldom has the resources to find out why a student made an error. Feedback in the form of public ridicule can be worse than no feedback at all.

While formal teaching and training form one set of contexts for which it is useful to provide structured group feedback, there are many others. For instance, ten people submit a paper to a conference but only one gets in; ten people with a realistic chance try to win a gold medal in ice skating but only one does; ten people vie for one job with a job interview. None of these are primarily meant to be teaching experiences, but there is no reason that they cannot be. In fact, it is not just contests that provide opportunities for structured feedback from others; any time people face a challenge and meet it, is an opportunity for learning.


  • Our brains are not infinite but finite. We all make mistakes.
  • Learning from others who have relevant experience can shorten learning time.
  • Humans are social creatures. We feel good when we get praise from others and feel worse when we get criticism.
  • Even a good teacher cannot see all the circumstances of a complex situation as well as a student’s peers might.
  • Because teachers are way beyond the learning phase of elementary skills, a students peers, who are closer to the learning phase, can sometimes offer better feedback.
  • We tend to believe informative feedback about our behavior more as more people give that same feedback.
  • Due to regression to the mean, over time, some instructors and teachers come to rely much more on punishment than praise.

* Instructors often see and correct the same wrong behavior thousands of times. They may tend to be impatient, forgetting that it isn’t this student who has made all those errors.

  • Each person only knows a small proportion of another person’s situation and individuality. Feedback from a group of peers may all convey the same information but someone may say exactly the “right thing” for this person in this situation.


Whenever a group is attempting to solve problems and address issues of any kind and wishes to improve its abilities over time, then it pays to provide feedback to those attempting to learn from peers as well as superiors in thoughtfully structured ways. The method should provide the optimal information but also the right emotional tone to optimize experience as well as learning outcomes.


  1. At the Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy, all the Fellows, including me, tape-recorded all our sessions (with the client’s knowledge). Each week, a small group of us (3 or 4) met with a Supervisor (a much more experienced therapist). We would typically play a segment of one of our sessions that we had found particularly troublesome in some way. After that, the Supervisor would fist ask the therapist who had played the tape what they were trying to accomplish and what they felt they had done very well at. Then, the Supervisor would ask that therapist what they saw that they could have improved upon and how.

The Supervisor then asked the peers for additional feedback, beginning each time with some additional positive thing. This was followed by suggestions for improvement. It would not be helpful, for instance, to say, “Be more empathic.” If someone did say that, the Supervisor might say something like, “Can you offer some specific suggestions; e.g., what has worked for you in becoming more empathic?”

At last, the Supervisor would give additional feedback and again beginning with additional positive aspects of the interaction and ending with additional suggestions for improvements or a summary of what everyone else had said. Although this sounds very formal, it typically felt quite natural. As psychologists, we all knew why this feedback was being provided in this manner and appreciated it.


2. At Patterns Workshops, those who write a proposed Pattern present it to the group for feedback. These feedback sessions are structured in a very particular way which seems to work quite well. In broad outline, the writer supplies a written version of their Pattern. The are then asked to briefly summarize the pattern and read aloud a small part of it. Then they are asked to sit outside the rest of the group who are in a circle. Now, they are to be silent and listen (to be a “fly on the wall”). The rest of the presentation of the Pattern and the feedback will be hosted by someone else. The author is not to talking except for a brief clarification question. Everyone in the group is invited to give feedback on both Structure/Content. They are always asked for positive comments first and then suggestions for improvement. If someone has essentially the same comment as someone else, they can simply say, “Ditto.” When all the relevant feedback has been collected or time runs out, the author is thanked, invited back into the circle, and someone tells an irrelevant story or joke.

From my personal experience, not being allowed to talk during feedback and hearing the same thing from ten people is a truly amazing experience. By not being allowed to prepare your rebuttal — because there is no rebuttal — you instead listen to what is being said and are able to process what is said at a much deeper level. You think about what it means to your Pattern. What is outlined above are what I consider to be the main features that are most relevant to this Pattern. However, if you are interested in a succinct yet detailed suggested structure, see Jim Coplien’s Pattern for Patterns Workshops linked below.

3. Readers will see similarities among the first two examples. In other contexts and in other cultures, different types of feedback sessions will be seen as effective. Ideally, the structure will have been developed through experience so as to maximize group learning, as opposed say, to feeding the ego of the most experienced member of the group. Another example of a structure process is in Code Reviews.

4. Toastmasters is an organization designed to teach people how to give better presentations and provide peer feedback. Here is a link to a nice feedback guide by one of their members.

5. After Action Reviews. The US military conducts After Action Reviews (AARs) as a standard part of learning from training exercises and field experience. Some of the same suggestions appear again: the spirit of the investigation is key; preparation is key; the purpose is not to point fingers but to learn how to do better.


Resulting Context:

Once a group experiences useful feedback delivered in a clear and constructive fashion, it maximizes the chances that learning will take place, and that the process itself is a positive one. Over time, a group may become even more effective over time as mutual trust is gained and people begin to gain proficiency in the process.



People learn from feedback more effectively if feedback includes positive statements; is specific and actionable; if they have a chance to suggest their own improvements first.

Related Patterns: 

Reality Check,


Make love not war. In all seriousness, feedback can feel more like the exercise of power — a kind of intellectual bullying — than it does like a learning experience. Poor feedback or even accurate feedback ineptly delivered feels like a sales person trying to guilt trip you into buying something. You feel manipulated and slightly dirty. It’s also a lot like a neighbor playing their rock music at full blast. It mostly feels obnoxious and not suited to your current situation or needs.


Thomas, J. (1978). Why do I self-down?  Because I’m an idiot? In Rational Living.

Pattern Language Overview


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Pattern Language Overview 


An old story recounts a person walking down a path and noticing two workers laying stones and cementing them into place. The walker noticed that one of the workers walked with a bounce in their step and a whistle on their lips. The other worker, however, trudged from stone pile to wall with a scowl. The walker imagined that perhaps the disgruntled worker was being paid less or was ill or had suffered a recent tragedy. Because the walker was familiar with the “Iroquois Rule of Six” however, they knew that it would be better to test their hypotheses than make assumptions about the reasons. He asked the disgruntled worker what they were doing. “Isn’t it obvious? I have to take these stones from the pile over there and lay them in that wall over there and cement them in place.” When asked the same question, the worker with the sunny disposition answered, “Isn’t it obvious? I’m building a cathedral!”


Many years ago, I read in IBM’s company magazine, Think, about a training program that IBM had provided in Kingston for people working in their chip fabrication plant. Management had decided to give an overview of the entire process to the assembly line workers. According to the story, one older worker jumped up in class and yelled, “Oh, NO! I’ve been doing it wrong! All these years!” Upon questioning, it turned out that the worker’s career had been in inspecting masks. Each mask was, in turn, used to make tens or hundreds of thousands of chips. Since so much effort went into the making of a mask, the worker had always thought it would be counter-productive to toss out masks that only had one or two flaws in them.

Astronauts who see the earth from space see things in a new and different perspective. In some cases, it causes them to better see the inter-relatedness of all nations and the desperate necessity of working together to ensure the ecological viability of the earth.


These stories illustrate that an overview, map, or vision can serve two important purposes in collaboration and coordination. First, it can serve as a motivation. Who wouldn’t rather be building a cathedral rather than merely moving stones? Second, an overview can inform people about how their work interacts with the work of others and thereby allow them to make choices that positively impact the project, product, or campaign as a whole.

I’m talking a pause from posting specific Patterns to provide a preview/overview of the proposed Pattern Language on “best practices” for teamwork, collaboration, coordination, and cooperation. There are many things that have caused me to believe we need such a Pattern Language. Among them, the most important reason for me is the recent up-tick in uncivil communication and in turning nearly every single human activity into a “competition.” I’ve also seen a continued misuse of the biological metaphor that evolution proceeds by fierce competition. Of course, competition is important in evolution. So is cooperation. So, I argue, is individual choice (See blog post: “Ripples”.)

This Pattern Language is still a “Work in Progress” so I cannot yet give a highly coherent and motivating overview, but I hope this list will at least give some better notion of where this project might be heading. I briefly summarize the Patterns for the first two months of 2018 and to preview some upcoming Patterns by presenting only their essence. Providing this overview is itself attempting to make use of a Pattern – “Provide a Motivating Map.” As you read through a larger number quickly, I am hoping that you will begin to see that these Patterns are not a set of independent disconnected parts but more like an inter-connected web of ideas. There are, I believe, a number of different ways to organize this web for particular purposes. More on that later, but so far, I have thought of at least two ways to categorize the Patterns.

First, the Patterns could be categorized into four basic classes of human needs; 1) to acquire new things or experiences, 2) to defend, 3) to bond, 4) to learn. Often a large scale human activity may have 2, 3 or even all 4 of these as goals. But, at least in terms of the focus of current activity, one of these predominates. I would argue that when having a Synectics session (a kind of structured brainstorming), the primary goal is to acquire new ideas or solutions. It may result in a product that “defends” a company’s position in the marketplace; it may well increase social bonding in the group; and participants will almost certainly learn something. But, the most relevant Patterns to the situation at hand are those whose primary purpose is to better acquire things. The primary purpose of Meaningful Initiation, however is social bonding.

A second way of categorizing the Pattern is in terms of the current stage of development of a product, service, or work one is currently in. If you are engaged in problem finding, or problem formulation, Bohm Dialogue is particularly well-suited to the current task at hand. After Action Review, however, is better suited to looking back at or near the end of a project, development, construction, or campaign. There are no hard and fast boundaries implied. These are heuristics meant to help deal with the complexity of an entire Pattern Language. One could use a slightly altered After Action Review as a jumping off place for new product idea generation. Instead of asking, “What could we do better next time to avoid making error X?” you could ask instead, “How could a mobile phone app be used to help make sure people would avoid making error X?”

A third thing to note about Patterns, is that they form an inter-connected lattice. They are not a strict hierarchy, but some Patterns are higher level than others. A higher level Pattern may have lower level Patterns as components or as alternatives. Two high level Patterns are: Special Processes for Special Purposes and Special Roles for Special Functions. Some alternatives for special purposes are Synectics for generating alternatives and stimulating divergent thinking, the K-J Method of Clustering, and Voting Schemes for prioritizing ideas to pursue. Some examples of various alternative roles include Moderator, Facilitator, and Authority Figure.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on First of March, 2018

Already Published in January – February.  

Who Speaks for Wolf? 

Make sure to hear from all relevant stakeholders and areas of expertise (or their able proxies).

Reality Check. 

For convenience, we often use an ersatz measure that’s somewhat correlated with what we are really interested in because it’s easier. In such cases, you must check to insure the correlation is still valid.

Small Successes Early. 

We like to jump right into large, complex tasks. When this is done with a large group of people meant to work smoothly on a large project, it is counter-productive. Instead, begin with a task that is fairly easy, fun and/or relevant and fairly assured of success.

Radical Collocation. 

When problems are complex and the sub-parts heavily interact in unpredictable ways, it is worth having the entire group work in very close proximity.

Meaningful Initiation. 

When done properly and meaningfully in the right context and controlled by appropriate Authority Figures, initiations may increase group cohesiveness.

The Iroquois Rule of Six. 

Human behavior is very tricky to interpret. When you observe behavior, and generate a reason for that behavior, before acting, generate at least five more plausible reasons.

Greater Gathering. 

Periodically and/or on special occasions, everyone should have a chance to get together with all of their work colleagues(and in some contexts, their families) and have some fun.

Context-Setting Entrance. 

It really helps social interaction if people know what is expected of them. The entrance, metaphorical or physical, can serve a vital role in setting the mood, tone, and formality of the upcoming social interaction.

Bohm Dialogue. 

Let someone speak. Listen to what they say without rehearsing your own answer. Reflect on what they say. Share your reflection. A Dialogue seeks to create some shared truth without setting into “sides” or “camps” or judging each statement made on the basis of what it means for me.

Build from Common Ground. 

People all share tremendous common ground even across the entire globe. Yet, we often try to jump into resolving our “differences” without first re-affirming what our common ground is. That’s a mistake. Start with discovering common ground and build from that.

To Be Elaborated On:

Use an Appropriate Pattern of Criticism.

For example: first, ask the person for positives and how they could improve; then, ask their peers for the same; then, the Authority Figure adds their feedback in the same order.

Negotiate from Needs, not Positions. 

Win/win solutions are much more likely if people negotiate from their needs than from positions. Example: Two sisters fight over the single orange. They both say they want it. At last they compromise and split the orange in half. Neither one is completely satisfied nor dissatisfied. Had they been honest about their real needs, they would have discovered that one wanted the peel for a cake flavoring and the other wanted to eat the fruit inside.

Give a Sympathetic Read. 

Natural language is incredibly ambiguous and vague. A reader should take a “sympathetic” stance toward what they read (or hear or feel). Instead of trying to find the “holes” in someone else’s arguments, first try to interpret it so that it does make sense to you.   

After Action Review. 

After a significant event takes place, parties who were involved in the decision making, should all get together with appropriate facilitators to see what can be learned from the situation. This is neither a “witch hunt” nor a “finger-pointing exercise” but an opportunity to see how to improve the organization over time.

Positive Deviance. 

(From book by the same title). The idea is that in any complex situation that you might want to “improve” or “fix” there are some who are in that situation and have already figured out how to succeed. Instead of designing and imposing a solution, you can find out who the success stories are, observe what they are doing, get feedback from the observed and then encourage the success stories to share what they do with the larger community.

Provide a Motivating Map. 

Everyone would rather help build a cathedral than simply lay stones atop each other. It’s more motivating to see that you are building something greater than the sum of its parts.

Provide an Overview Map. 

The purpose of this map is to let people understand how their particular tasks fit into the grand scheme. This proves useful in many situations. Sometimes, the same Map can serve both as an Overview and Motivating Map.

Collaborating Music. 

There is value to be gained in terms of social capital with listening to common music, more in dancing to common music and more still in the creation of common music. Of course, many collaborative activities can create social capital, but music seems to be one of the most “whole-brain” experiences we have and is particularly well-suited to building social capital.


Making Music Together

Narrative Insight Method. 

People exchange and build on each other’s stories in specified ways to create and organize insights and lessons learned.

Elicit from Cultural Diversity. 

Empirical research shows that more diverse groups can produce more creative and innovative outcomes. Even if such a group cannot work together always, at least use this during divergent thinking, though there is value in diversity for convergent thinking as well. Below is a (badly distorted) map of the world showing the nations from which readers of this blog hailed so far. (Invite your friends from all over the world!)

Map of Readers of Blog

Help Desk Feeds Design. 

(I really want a more general title.) People who work at “help desks” are under time pressure but there should be mechanisms in place for what they learn about customers, tasks, contexts, pain points, to be fed back to development. In a similar fashion, in any domain, whatever information is garnered from interacting face to face with uses, customers, stakeholders, friends, enemies should be fed back to people who design systems, services, products, or governance.

Queue of Communicating Peers.

In many instances, people in queue, whether physical or electronic, share certain concerns in common. (There is always common ground). Rather than have them “stand in line” staring at the back of someone else’s head, encourage them to help enhance mutual understanding among the group.

Palaver Tree. 

This name comes from some places in sub-Saharan Africa where people from a village gather to respectfully discuss what concerns the whole village. Generally, this is near a big tree that can provide shade during dry seasons. In colder climates, a communal fire can serve as the focal point. There may be other special places that are conducive to this kind of Dialogue.

Talking Stick. 

Often, when confronting a problem that is pressing, complex, or anxiety-provoking, everyone wants to talk at once. No progress is made because people cannot even hear what is being said in the resulting din and no-one is paying attention to anything but getting their own point heard. A Talking Stick provides a visible cue as to who “has the floor.” Only one person at a time can hold the Talking Stick and only they can talk.

Round Robin Turn Taking.

In a group, it often happens that a small group of people tend to “monopolize” the discussion if it is held in a free-wheeling manner. An alternative is to have an Authority Figure or Moderator or Facilitator make sure that every person gets a chance to speak and that every person, including the shiest are encouraged to give their perspectives.

Mentoring Circle. 

It is often easiest for us to learn from people who have recently faced and solved the same problems that we are now facing. A Mentoring Circle provides a way for people to learn from other individuals and from the group.

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Levels of Authority.

As one becomes more experienced and more trusted by a group, it is normal to grant more authority to that person to act on behalf of the group and to have more access to its resources.

Anonymous Stories for Organizational Learning

Often individuals make errors that can provide a learning experience, not only for them, but for others as well. Unfortunately, the competitive nature of many organizations makes admitting to errors costly for the person who made the mistake. An anonymized story can provide a way for the organization as a whole to learn from individuals without their accruing blame and ridicule.  

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Registered Anonymity.

In Amy Bruckman’s MIT dissertation (Moose Crossing), she provided a space for middle school kids to teach each other object-oriented programming. She wanted to make sure the kids “behaved” appropriately despite their being anonymous and on-line despite the fact that these conditions often spawn inappropriate and even mean-spirited comments. While using real identities could help prevent that, it could also lead to even worse behavior. Instead, she used Registered Anonymity. That is, she knew everyone’s real identity and made it clear that inappropriate behavior would not be tolerated. But the child participants were not allowed to share their real identities.

Answer Garden. 

People are busy and don’t want to answer the same simple question over and over. In Answer Garden, developed by Mark Ackerman for his MIT dissertation, people with expertise claimed a part of the tree of knowledge that they were familiar with and agreed to answer questions about that specific subject area. Once the question was answered however, newcomers were expect to first look through the tree for the answer they needed. If there are no appropriate answer, they would post their question at the nearest node to the requested answer. The expert would come by and answer that question, not only for the person who initially asked it, but the tree would grow with that newly posted answer as well.


Community of Communities. 

Complex wide-ranging problems such as ensuring that the world economy is organized to sustain the ecosystem require many people to address various problems. While a very large group of people may be concerned that they leave a livable planet for their descendants, everyone cannot work on every aspect. Better is to have communities work on those aspects for which they have particular interest and expertise. In Sweden, for example, Karl-Henrik Robert (èrt) developed a program called “The Natural Step.” This led to the development of specific communities aiding in the way they best could; e.g., lawyers for a sustainable Sweden might concentrate on legislation and regulation, psychologists for a sustainable Sweden might concentrate on methods to raise public awareness; traffic engineers for a sustainable Sweden might concentrate on making more efficient kinds of roundabouts.

Special Roles for Special Purposes. 

Every culture seems to have developed this notion. There are many specific roles that have been developed for specific purposes. Below are just a few.

Master of Ceremonies. 

This is literally someone in charge of a ceremony, ritual, or rite. It has come to include an entertainer who serves to welcome guests and introduce them. A closely related concept is the “Session Chair” who introduces speakers, makes sure they have what they need, keeps track of time, and moderates audience participation.


In many oral cultures, one person, often chosen because of interest or ability, is chosen to memorize and repeat the oral history. In such cases, the role typically lasts a lifetime, not just a project.

Stake Warrior

The idea of a “stake warrior” is that they literally pound a stake into the ground and then tether themselves to that stake during battle. They can advance, go laterally or retreat, but only so far. Conceptually, a stake warrior shows some flexibility in discussion or negotiation, but there are boundaries beyond which they refuse to go.

DeBono’s Colored Hats. 

Edward DeBono has written a number of books about creativity and innovation. One of his ideas is to use colored hats either physically or conceptually to signal which role a person is speaking in. For example, a person wearing a Black Hat is judging ideas while a Green Hat is more for creativity and provocation. More empirical research is needed to validate whether using hats (even metaphorically) actually improves performance.


A Moderator’s main job is to make sure that a group actually follows whatever rules it has set out for itself about time limits, civility, taking turns, etc. A Moderator may also adjudicate disputes between two sides.


A Facilitator’s main job is to keep the group moving forward. They might, for instance, suggest a different way of looking at a topic, or try to invoke a metaphor or to draw out less forthcoming group members.

Setting Expectations. 

Promise a person five dollars and give them ten. They will be very happy. Promise another person twenty and give them ten. The will be unhappy about it. What’s different? They both get ten dollars. Many books on developing projects will recommend “under-promising and over delivering.” In some cases, because of science fiction, TV programs, and the popular press, people may come to think anything is possible.

Support Flow and Breakdown. 

When designing a new system, there is an anticipated way for it to work, whether it’s traffic flow in a city, water flow in the plumbing or information flow in an organization. However, eventually, there will be breakdowns in any of these systems. Breakdowns are always a hassle, but they will be far less so if the possibility of a breakdown has been anticipated ahead of time and then planned for.

Ratchet Social Change with Infrastructure. 

Social changes are initially subject to falling back into previous patterns. In some cases, it may help make a social change more permanent by creating an infrastructure that supports the new system. For instance, if you want to improve relations between two countries, you could fund projects jointly that have a long completion time. Or, if you wanted to divide people, you could make it harder for people to see news and information from people across that divide.

Authority Figure. 

Sometimes, a decision needs to be made quickly. Or, perhaps consensus will never be reached. In such cases, it is sometimes useful to have an agreed upon Authority Figure who can be trusted to make an informed decision that takes into account all the relevant interests. Naturally, Authority Figure who makes decisions from a position of ignorance or self-interest must be removed as quickly as possible.


Celebrate Local Successes Globally. 

Often a very large-scale collaboration project such as developing a new product or service, governing a country, or trying to manage a cross-cultural non-profit stands to lose coherence and motivation when compared with a small co-located team. One way to help both with organizational learning and with encouraging high spirits is to celebrate local successes with the global team. If done correctly, this can be motivating for both the successful team members and the larger team.

Special Processes for Special Purposes. 

This is another high level Pattern. People have developed numerous special purpose processes. Below I review a few. The reason for having different processes for different purposes is that a process can take into account the number of people, the type of goal, the time constraints, and other conditions so that a process is particularly likely to help insure success. A process can fail if it is badly executed but it can also fail simply because it is not appropriate to the task at hand.


Originally, the term derived from the work of Prince and Gordon as a way to describe a suite of techniques for creative problem solving. It is similar to brainstorming in that the emphasis is on generating many ideas quickly and without taking time out of idea generation in order to evaluate and debate each idea. Also like brainstorming, people are encouraged to build on each other’s ideas. In addition, they describe various clever ways to incorporate metaphorical thinking into the process. They also allow each person to work on the “Problem As Understood” and this can be slightly different for each person. I have personally found synectics to be extremely useful. It “works” in generating many ideas, some of which can be quite useful and novel. For example, many years ago, I facilitated such a session and the foreign equivalent of the American IRS decided that increasing tax revenue was their goal but that to achieve that, there were other methods than increasing tax rates and increasing compliance.

Speed Dating. 

Although there are actual speed dating venues, here this term refers to a way for a moderate sized group of people to get to know each other quickly by spending two minutes with one other person in the group quickly recounting their backgrounds and interests and then moving on to form new pairs.


KJ Method. 

This is a way to cluster ideas. Many people are now familiar with this as a way of clustering ideas from a brainstorming or synectics session or for clustering ethnographic observations in order to later address product features and functions to address them. Basically, a large number of post-in notes are put on a wall and re-arranged by the group, some of whom may focus on a particular area of the overall cognitive map that is being build or spend their time thinking more about the whole. This method is often used, for example, in CHI Program Committee meetings to take a first pass at developing sessions. There have also been attempts to automate such processes.


Rating and Ranking.

Often a large number of ideas are generated but the resources available do not allow all of them to be pursued. Therefore, a variety of voting, ranking and rating systems have been developed so that the group as a whole has input into the direction taken.

Incremental Value. 

It is difficult for people, either as groups or individuals, to move from a current way of doing things to a new one. Almost invariably, people will find the old way of doing things more “comfortable.” The transition to a new way will be much easier if there are incremental improvements in performance along the way rather than the mere promise of some wondrous new state at the conclusion of a long process of change.

Jump Start. 

Sometimes, change in an organization or process needs to be “jump-started” by providing additional incentives or special organizational support in some way.

Active Reminders. 

As people are learning new methods, processes, and skills, it is helpful to have Active Reminders so that people are less likely to fall into old habits. For example, in attempting to do brainstorming, many people find it very difficult to withhold judgment and criticism from ideas that others put forth. It can be helpful in such cases to have the “Rules” of brainstorming prominent displayed or to have someone whose role is mainly to remind people to build on each other’s ideas when someone critiques an idea.

Controlling Growth. 

While people often want their company, non-profit, or movement to grow as quickly as possible, growth without restraint is often called “cancer.” Growth needs to be controlled so that unanticipated side-effects do not destroy the entire company, non-profit or movement. People Express Airlines, for instance, is often thought to have have tanked because their success led to such rapid growth that they could not sustain what made them successful in the first place.

Expressive Communication Builds Mutual Trust.

Studies of cooperation in games such as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” show that when people communicate something personal and apart from the game such as sharing photos, backgrounds, hobbies, etc. it tends to increase the chances of cooperation.

These Patterns (or really, more accurately, hints of Patterns, are not meant to be exhaustive. But hopefully, there are enough Patterns in this post to give readers a better idea of the wide variety of Patterns than might cohere into a Socio-Technical Pattern Language for Collaboration and Teamwork.


Fincher, S., Finlay, J., Green, S., Matchen, P., Jones, L., Thomas, J.C., Molina, P. (2004) Perspectives on HCI patterns: Concepts and tools.  Workshop at CHI 2004, ACM Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems.

Pan, Y., Roedl, D., Blevis, E., & Thomas, J. (2015). Fashion Thinking: Fashion Practices and Sustainable Interaction Design. International Journal of Design, 9(1), 53-66.

Schuler, D. (2008).  Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Social Change. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Thomas, J. C., Kellogg, W.A., and Erickson, T. (2001) The Knowledge Management puzzle: Human and social factors in knowledge management. IBM Systems Journal, 40(4), 863-884.

Thomas, J.C. and Carroll, J. (1978). The psychological study of design. Design Studies, 1 (1), pp. 5-11.

Thomas, J. C. (2012). Patterns for emergent global intelligence. In Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience By Design J. Carroll (Ed.), New York: Springer.

Thomas, J. C. & Richards, J. T. (2012). Achieving psychological simplicity: Measures and methods to reduce cognitive complexity. In The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook. J. Jacko (Ed.) Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Thomas, J.(2008).  Fun at work: Managing HCI from a Peopleware perspective. HCI Remixed. D. McDonald & T. Erickson (Eds.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Thomas, J.C. (2003), Social aspects of gerontechnology.  In Impact of technology on successful aging N. Charness & K. Warner Schaie (Eds.). New York: Springer.

Thomas, J. C. (2001). An HCI Agenda for the Next Millennium: Emergent Global Intelligence. In R. Earnshaw, R. Guedj, A. van Dam, and J. Vince (Eds.), Frontiers of human-centered computing, online communities, and virtual environments. London: Springer-Verlag.


Thomas, J.C. (1996). The long-term social implications of new information technology. In R. Dholakia, N. Mundorf, & N. Dholakia (Eds.), New Infotainment Technologies in the Home: Demand Side Perspectives. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Thomas, J.C., Lee, A., & Danis, C (2002). “Who Speaks for Wolf?” IBM Research Report, RC-22644. Yorktown Heights, NY: IBM Corporation.

Thomas, J. C. (2017). Building Common Ground in a Wildly Webbed World: A Pattern Language Approach. PPDD Workshop, 5/25/2017, San Diego, CA.

Thomas, J. C. (2017). Old People and New Technology: What’s the Story? Presented at Northwestern University Symposium on the Future of On-Line Interactions, Evanston, Ill, 4/22/2017.

Build from Common Ground


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CHI Workshop Activity: Working Together to Create World Map (Florence, 2008)

Build From Common Ground


The idea for this Pattern comes from long personal experience trying in many contexts to get to solutions quickly without first bothering to try to find common ground. In addition, I am working on a project to provide a platform to support civil discussion, debate, Dialogue, and deliberations. One of the other founders has a long history with The Interactivity Foundation which also uses various methods to build from common ground.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on February 20-25, 2018




Human beings share a large majority of their genes. Life on earth began 4.75 billion years ago. Only around 100,000 years ago people began migrating out of Africa, going to different places and evolving different cultures, religions, and languages. In addition to our long common history, people across the globe want many of the same things: freedom, food, water, safety, love, friendship, a space to be themselves, a life with some pleasure and a sense of meaning or higher purpose.

In the so-called developed world, there is an emphasis on doing things as quickly and efficiently as possible. To accomplish that, many people are extremely specialized in their education and profession in addition to whatever differences they have in culture and family background. Often, in a highly populated, highly interconnected world, people must collaborate and cooperate at a very large scale. Since some of the problems we face (e.g., preventing atomic war; preventing plagues; reducing global climate change) are vital, people are passionate about getting to solutions. They want to do this quickly. There is often a natural tendency to focus immediately on the problem as initially defined, and then to focus on differences and to resolve those differences as quickly and efficiently as possible. This does not generally work. People are invested in their own solutions which depend on their own background and experiences in their various cultures, families, education and training. Focusing from the onset on differences sets up a competitive mindset which then has everyone thinking how to “win” against their competitors. Unlike athletic competitions, people are unlikely even to agree initially on the “rules” for deliberations and debate, and often have pre-existing “positions” to sell to everyone else or force on everyone else.

Therefore, for any group trying to solve a problem collaboratively, it works better to first identify and build on common ground. Later, after some degree of trust is established, people may (or may not) find it useful to examine as well their differences as a source of ideas for how to solve the larger problem.  They may choose from a variety of methods to make progress. Starting with common ground can help everyone involved to see that they are all part of one big and quite similar “in-group” with a problem to solve rather than focusing on everyone else as being in an “out-group” that needs to be defended against.



Groups function better under a wide variety of circumstances if there is a high degree of internal mutual trust. If people work together over a long period of time, trust will usually develop if warranted. This is what happens in most (but not all) work groups, teams, standing committees, etc. However, it often happens that other problems need to be understood and solved by groups that span pre-existing organizations. For example, a town needs to collectively decide whether to sell a beautiful community park to a mall developer who promises tax revenue and convenient shopping for the town. A state needs to decide whether to legalize marijuana or to ban assault weapons. A nation needs to decide whether or not to work with other nations to reduce air and water pollution. People addressing such issues will often have to address them in combination with others that they do not already know well and may not trust.

Often such decisions as those mentioned above must be made under some time pressure. Some people will have vested interests in a “solution” that is particularly favorable to them regardless of how much it hurts others. When people begin by stating their own position and trying to “sell it” to others, an adversarial atmosphere is created so that “winning” rather than “solving” becomes the dominant tone of subsequent conversations and actions. This almost always results in sub-optimal solutions and, in addition, almost always results in reducing trust and social capital among the people deciding.

Even under the best of circumstances, with everyone committed to finding a “good” solution for all, people will tend to misunderstand each other simply because language is ambiguous and vague. People have different assumptions based on their experiences, culture, and training what process to follow as well as what constitutes acceptable rules and boundaries. If we add to these inherent difficulties the further (and avoidable) difficulty that people are focused on the ways people are different, it will tend to prevent mutual trust and prevent the emergence of new ways to find, formulate and solve the problems at hand.



Complex problems can often only be solved by groups. Even when the nature of the problem is simple enough for one person to solve, people want to feel that they or their representatives are engaged in the process if the outcome will impact them. For the group to work well together to solve problems, it is useful for them to understand each other’s situations and motivations. When in a hurry or under stress, people often perceive others and their motivations, not on the basis of inquiry into what those are but on group membership and the way that group differentiates itself from other groups.

Our nervous systems (and those of other animals) are constructed to be particularly sensitive to differences and changes. Our education and society teach us to differentiate as much as possible. We celebrate the wine connoisseur who can tell you the year and vineyard and scoff at the person who simply says, “I like all wine.” Sometimes, of course, fine differentiation is critical, particularly for an omnivore. We need, for instance, to be able to differentiate the three leaves of a wild strawberry from the three leaves of poison ivy. In biology class, we get high grades for correctly labeling 100 different parts of the earthworm and get no credit for simply saying, “Look! These are all parts of an earthworm! How cool! I had no idea it was that complex inside or that it has so many of the same parts we do!” In many contexts, being able to further differentiate things is a good thing. Even in group problem solving, there are situations where this is true. However, we typically do not ask ourselves whether this is one of those situations. We tend to dive unthinkingly into exploring differences.


  • Our brains are not infinite but finite. We, along with other animals, generally focus on foreground while ignoring or presuming the background. Our nervous system is especially tuned to differences and changes, not to similarities and constancies.
  • Our educational systems typically focuses on teaching people to make even finer and further differentiations beyond what our senses immediately show.
  • Societies typically celebrate finding additional differences rather than finding additional similarities. Experts are typically defined by their ability to detect differences rather than their ability to see similarities.
  • People are quintessentially social animals. Therefore we tend to join groups. Each group coheres around a group identity which tends to define itself in terms of differences from other groups and seldom mentions similarities.
  • Each person only knows a small proportion of another person’s situation and individuality. Often, we treat each person according to their differentiating group membership(s) rather than their similarities to ourselves or according to the complexity of their individual selves.


When a group begins to address a situation that impacts many people in various ways, and especially if people already have opinions and positions on the situation, begin by stressing, creating, or fostering their common ground before even starting any other problem solving activity.


Sharing a Meal at CHI 2008 Workshop


1. At IBM Research, for several years, I managed a research project on the “business uses of stories and storytelling.” I worked with a small team of researchers & consultants to develop tools and techniques. One patent (Story-based organizational assessment and effect system) was originally inspired by trying to help companies involved in mergers and acquisitions deal with cultural differences between companies. The suggested technique essentially involved collecting stories from the two original companies, analyzing them for the underlying values that were expressed in the stories, finding common values in the stories from both original companies, creating new stories using the values and situations from the originals but making sure the new stories were constructed to be memorable and motivating; and finally re-introducing these stories to the people from both companies. The reason for this whole process was to stress common ground so that people from two companies could work better together.


2. At a workshop at the 1992 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’92), I co-organized and co-led a workshop on “Cross-cultural issues in HCI.” At the beginning of the workshop, the participants entered the assigned workshop room to find that it had been set up in a “classroom style” with one small table and two chairs at the front of the room and all the other chairs and desks set up for the “listeners.” We wanted the room set up as a large circle. Everyone pitched in to re-arrange the room into this large circle. This physical activity provided additional common ground for the team. One outcome of the Pattern “Small Successes Early” is to provide common ground. Having people work together to perform a physical task is one way to establish common ground.

We also played a game called “Barnga.” In my introduction to the game, I explained that it was much like Bridge, Whist, or Euchre. To my surprise, none of the participants attending from Asia had any idea how to play such games or what I meant by “tricks” or “following suit.” That experience illustrates how easy it is (at least for me!) to over-estimate how much common ground exists in a group.  (

In a later workshop (2008) on “Human Computer Interaction for International Development,” at the suggestion of Andy Dearden, we began by cooperatively building a map of the world from materials at hand (illustrated above) before delving into the details of the workshop. Starting with this as “common ground” we then explored some of our differences by standing on the representation of where we were from, a favorite place we had visited, a place we wanted to visit, etc.

3. Religions regularly practice rites and rituals. For practitioners of the religion, this provides common ground regardless of a host of differences among the adherents. Of course, it is a double-edged sword because differences among these rites and rituals can also separate people. One of the more brilliant scenes from West Wing cuts among scenes of people attending religions services that are variously Jewish, Muslim, and Christian while the viewer knows that there is an unsuccessful peace effort underway. In this case, the uncommented footage helps to illustrate the common ground among these three religions.


4. The Family of Man was both an ambitious photography exhibit and a book (definitely worth buying) that portrays people across the world to illustrate precisely that we do have common ground.

5. In an earlier blog post, I showed with back of the envelope calculations just how “related” humanity is in terms of genetics, experience, ideas, and matter. In fact, all of life on earth is highly inter-related and it has been for its entire 4.75 billion years.

6. In a recent episode of the TV series, Madam Secretary, the Secretary of State is trying to resolve a conflict between two nations A and B. The diplomats from A say they cannot trust B and the diplomats from B say that they cannot trust A. She suggests that they start from their mutual distrust as part of common ground. In other words, rather than treating the mistrust of A and B as two separate issues, she begins by suggesting that A and B both share two things in common: not only a desire for peace but also a difficulty in trusting the other side. Even mutual distrust can be framed as a basis for common ground. This is more than a linguistic trick. It is an important reframing. It may well turn out that a single event such as a soccer game with teams that have members from both nations may help reduce mistrust on both sides at the same time.

7. Holiday celebrations, the preparation and consumption of food, listening to music, or appreciating the beauty of nature may all provide additional ways of beginning with common ground. Of course, there are cultural differences in all of these as well so one must take some care to provide something that actually is common ground and not something that tends to emphasize the differences among people in these activities.

8. One of the plenary speakers at CHI 1989 in Austin Texas was an astronaut who had been in space. I spoke with him after and during our conversation, he claimed that all astronauts, whatever country they were from, shared the same experience of seeing earth from space; viz., that the national boundaries we typically think so much about were only political; most are not physical. He said all the astronauts were struck by how thin and fragile our atmosphere is and that the earth is the only place around that is capable of sustain the breadth and depth of life. Many of them found this realization of “common ground” the most transformative of all their experiences in the space program.

Resulting Context:

Once people experience common ground, they may still disagree, debate, discuss, or hopefully dialogue in order to identify issues and problems. Experiencing common ground makes it harder to “dehumanize” the other side. It decreases the chances that people will engage in counter-productive actions such as “name calling” or using propaganda techniques to “prove” that they are right and their “opponents” are wrong.


Actions are always better based on reality than on fantasy. Reality is that people share much in common. Reality is that there are also many remaining differences. The entire problem solving process (including problem finding, problem formulation all the way through to finding issues with solutions and re-solving, re-negotiating, re-designing, or re-developing a solution) is enhanced when it is based on a balanced view that includes both real similarities and real differences. We already have a culture and an educational system that focuses on differences. Focusing on common ground is a critical factor in balancing our view so that we do not try to solve problems based on the partial truth that we are all different.

Related Patterns: 

Reality Check, Check-In, Small Successes Early.


It is a windy day in San Diego as I write this. We have a set of wind chimes outside the bedroom. Whichever direction the wind blows; however windy it gets (within bounds); and even if the wind is quite chaotic, the sound that emerges is always harmonic and tuneful. This is because of the structure and relationships of the chimes. It would be nice if we could have a platform that encouraged and promoted civility. I think that could work because of the nature of the platform. One of the “chimes” could be Bohm Dialogue; another could be “Building from Common Ground.”

Another musical example is Jazz Improvisation. If a group of musicians who know each other get together, they can improvise some very nice music. If they’ve never met, they will almost certainly agree on a few boundaries before beginning such as style, time signature, key signature. They may well start by having the percussion set up a “beat” that everyone relates to.

Now, imagine instead that seven random people are thrown together from seven different cultures. Each has an instrument that none of the others has ever seen. They have completely different musical experiences and expectations. Does it not make sense that they will take more time to converge on anything good? Doesn’t it seem as though they first need to discover some kind of common ground in terms of scales, rhythms, degree of repetition before achieving a good result? Or, do you think they should argue about which kind of music is best first? Do you think any of the seven will be able to convince the other six that “their” kind of music is superior? Suppose instead of having as one mutual goal making good music, instead, they are in a contest and only one of them will “win” and go on to the next round. Surely, this will only further confound any possible teamwork. Add to this, that they only have two minutes. What kind of performance would you expect now? And, yet, we seem to expect people from very different backgrounds to get on-line and instantly “make good music together.” Whether it’s 140 characters, 280 characters or a whole paragraph, it seems unlikely you will be able to sway anyone to move from “their position” to “your position.”


International sports competitions such as the Olympics provide a setting where people from around the world get together and compete. These are not random people; they are all immensely talented and skilled; however, they are also all highly competitive. Yet, the venue provides a framework for competition that provides a structure for competing within common ground. Despite being from different cultures and using different languages, the athletes push each other to amazing performances with a minimum of rancor. Every athlete realizes as well that every other athlete has also gone through a rigorous selection and training process involving many sacrifices to get where they are — more common ground. The Olympics might be thought of as a particularly interesting example of finding common ground despite people having different backgrounds, language, and goals. Sports may also be thought of as a compelling metaphor. When politics are reported in the media, they are most often treated as a sporting event. But it is a strange kind of sporting event in that such reporting seldom stresses common ground and instead focuses on strategy, polls, winning, losing, and differences. It almost never reports on common ground in politics. In reporting on actual sporting events, however, the reporting focus often does cover the common ground that athletes face; e.g., the training, the dedication, the sacrifices that families must make, the importance of coaching, etc.


Thomas, J. C. (2017). Building Common Ground in a Wildly Webbed World: A Pattern Language Approach. PPDD Workshop, 5/25/2017, San Diego, CA.

Thomas, J.C. & Kellogg, W. (1993). Cross-cultural perspectives on human-computer interaction: report on the CHI ’92 workshop. SIGCHI Bulletin, 25 (2), 40-45.


Bohm Dialogue


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IMG_0706Bohm Dialogue


The idea for this Pattern comes from the work of David Bohm. Bohm was a quantum physicist who, later in life, became interested in human communication. He would not say he “invented” dialogue; rather, he felt it was common in so-called “primitive” societies. Indeed, it seems to have been a common occurrence in the recounting of Paula Underwood in The Walking People. I learned more about Dialogue from Peter Senge and Bill Isaacs while working in “Knowledge Management” at NYNEX and IBM.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on February 21, 2018



Campfire Reflections. Quaker meeting.


In a hyper-competitive society, conversations that might be related to actions that affect more than one person are framed as contests with winners and losers, much like a sporting event or a court case. Sometimes, this might be appropriate, but it is not generally a good method. An alternative method to debate and discussion is Dialogue. In discussion and debate, as soon as one person begins saying something in favor of X, others decide whether they are for or against X. Then, based on a superficial hearing of what the person is saying, they determine how to best add weight to X or detract from it. They typically want to be able to “jump in” as soon as there is the slightest gap in the conversation. As a result, they are typically rehearsing their own upcoming argument and not even listening to the other person beyond the first few words. By contrast, in Bohm Dialogue, one person says something and everyone else listens to them respectfully. After listening, everyone reflects on what has been said. Then, they might or might not make a comment. This comment does not have to be an argument pro or con. It can be an analogy, a story, a reflection, a question, an example, or an observation. Rather than dividing into “camps” or “teams” and trying to “win” an argument about whether X or ~X is better, everyone works collaboratively and cooperatively to understand the space of possibilities and consequences. In such cases, the group might end up doing X, ~X, or .5X. Or, they may decide to gather more data; they may invent Y; they might decide to experiment in a small way with X. It is a joint construction process.


Groups consists of individuals who never have precisely the same interests or the same experiences. In some cases, people simply make their own choices. It isn’t necessary for everyone to eat the same food or read the same books. But in some cases, appropriate action requires that people agree. Do we drive on the left side of the road or the right side? Do we penalize companies for polluting the environment or not? Do we have daylight savings time or not?

In a competitive society, it is easy to fall into the trap of framing problems in terms of who will benefit and who will lose. Everyone on the “losing side” will tend to find arguments to support their position even before understanding the other side. Such a process rarely results in innovation or breakthrough thinking. In a rush to win, people tend to ignore subtleties and interactions so even the framing of the problem becomes over-simplified. If people become angry or fearful, their ability to process information deteriorates and they most often stick with something they already know. In extreme cases, people will literally “freeze” with fear and be unable to perform even a simple yet critical action such as pulling the ripcord on their parachute.

In addition, if group action is decided through a process that is framed in terms of winning and losing, those on the losing side may not fully cooperate with the group decision. Consciously or unconsciously, they may even act to thwart the implementation of the group decision.

In the rush to “win,” those on the winning side may not even listen to important concerns from the other “side” and even if the “correct” decision “wins out,” important implementational details are overlooked. In this way, the implementation of the group decision will be flawed even if everyone tries to cooperate.

By framing the group decision process in terms of “winners” and “losers,” group cohesion and mutual trust can often be lost. This is particularly true if the group process is so contentious that people use propaganda or outright lies to try to “win” the debate. This not only makes this particular problem solving exercise less than optimal; it also means that future interactions will be less cordial, less civil, and less likely to result in what is best for the group as a whole.


Complex problems and large problems can often only be solved by groups. In addition, sometimes, decisions must necessarily impact the entire group. Groups may be as small as a couple deciding where to go on vacation or tennis doubles team deciding on an effective approach to their next match or as large as all of humanity deciding on how to deal with population growth and pollution.

Groups must not only decide on a collective course of action; generally, they must also implement that decision.


  • Everyone wants to protect their “own interests.”
  • People may think of their “own interests” at varying levels; e.g., their own body, their own belief system, their own family, their own tribe, their own party, their own nation, all of humanity, or even all of life.
  • The expectations of any one person are primarily based on their own experiences.
  • The behavior of any other person is largely based on that person’s experiences.
  • If one person acts uncivilly or hyper-competitively, it tends to increase the chances that others will do the same.
  • In some societies, competition has become the default way to interact.
  • Competition tends to induce high stress levels in people.
  • High stress levels tend to make people less willing to listen, change, or think creatively.

* Everyone is an expert when it comes to their own experience.


Instead of having a group debate or discuss two or a few alternatives to determine which one is the winner, instead use Bohm Dialogue to cooperatively, cooly, and calmly have the group examine a situation using everyone’s experience together. Have people listen respectfully to everyone’s contribution. Have everyone reflect on what they say. It helps if people frame their contribution in terms of their own experience rather than abstract and sweeping generalities and pronouncements. Let the group cooperatively build a joint understanding of the problem. This often results in an emergent solution. Even when it does not and, in the end, a vote on X or ~X must be taken, everyone feels respected by everyone else and people are much more likely to help implement the solution.



Imagine a tribe of people sitting around a fire at the end of the day. They reflect on their experiences. One says, “I gathered acorns today. There were very few though. This is not like the other years.” Everyone listens. They reflect.

Another says, “It would be nice if we could eat the acorns as the squirrels do, without having to wait.”

Another says, “Yes, though even they do not eat them all right away.”

Another: “Are there fewer oak trees? Or, is each tree making fewer acorns?”

The first says, “I am not sure. Let me think back. Each tree has fewer than in years past.”

Another says, “Speaking of fewer, I only caught two fish today in my favorite fishing spot. And the water was shallower.”

Another adds: “This spring I gathered fiddlehead ferns. There were only a few. Odd.”

Another: “There were so many nice sunny days this spring and summer. I guess there was a lot less rain.”

Another: “It would be nice if we could make it rain more.”

An older woman adds, “It has been raining less as I’ve grown older. Less and less each year.”

Another: “How can we make it rain more?”

Another: “I don’t know how we can make it rain more. But we could save the water when it does rain.”

Another: “I like water. Sometimes the small raindrops join together to make larger ones.”

Another: “Indeed, it is the nature of water to like the company of others.” Laughter.

Another, “Perhaps we can encourage water from the big river to visit us. We can dig a trench. If we encourage some water to go into that trench, other drops may follow into our stream.”

Another: “More water in our stream would encourage fish as well as fiddleheads and oaks to visit us more often.”

To the typical “modern person,” this dialogue seems needlessly random and inefficient. But is it really?

Sure, the typical business meeting has an agenda and it seems as though it’s efficient. The meeting below is pure fiction — but it is precisely in line with my typical experiences from a lifetime of meetings in “efficient corporate America.”


10:10- 10:30 Discuss ways to get more acorns.

Chairperson: “We need more acorns. How can we get them?”

Person 1: “I need help. They are hard to find.”

Person 2: “Well, I can’t do it. I’m having enough trouble getting fish. That takes all my time.”

Person 3: “You think you’ve got troubles? I can’t find enough fiddleheads either, so I can’t help.”

Person 4 – speaking directly to Person 1: “You sure you’re really hunting acorns and not just ogling the women? Just kidding.”

Person 1: “You come gather the acorns then. You’ll see.”

Person 4: “I said I was just kidding.”

Person 2: “When can we talk about getting more help fishing? Can we put that on the agenda for next week?”

Chairperson: “It’s next on the agenda.”

Person 5: “The real solution is incentives. I hate to say it, but I just don’t think everyone is really pulling their own weight around here.”

Person 6: “The key is better metrics. Words like ‘fewer’ are very fuzzy. We need an accounting of all the acorns. And fish. And fiddleheads. Then, we will be able to quantify the extent of the problem.”

Person 1: “Who is going to count the acorns? You? I know I got fewer and it isn’t from not trying.”

Chairperson: “Hey, we’re almost out of time. Let’s table this discussion for now and put it on the agenda for next week. It seems to me, in the meantime, Person 1, you’re going to have to get up a little earlier in the morning and gather more acorns that way. Let’s vote. All in favor of Person 1 getting up earlier to gather more acorns, raise your hands.”

[Everyone raises their hands except Person 1].

Chairperson: “OK, motion carried. Person 1, give us a report next week on exactly how many acorns you got every day.”

Person 1: “Look, the acorns are largely gone now. Getting up earlier isn’t going to help.”

Chairperson: “Sorry, Person 1. Do the best you can. We need to move to the next item on the agenda which concerns fishing.”

Person 1: “I always do the best I can. But I’m telling you that there will still be fewer acorns next week.”

Chairperson: “OK, we need to take this off-line and talk about fishing. If you can’t gather acorns, we’ll find someone who can. Enough.”

What are the likely outcomes from this “efficient” meeting? First, it is quite likely that Person 1 is pretty pissed off. Second, the group is unlikely to ever realize that there is a problem with the acorn supply rather than the extent or manner in which Person 1 is gathering them. Third, the group is way far away from realizing the systemic nature of the problem and the fact that the “real problem” is a diminishing source of water, let alone making any progress toward solving that actual problem.

Resulting Context:

Generally speaking, using dialogue will be more not less efficient for finding and implementing solutions to root problems than will competitive debates or discussions. The solutions arising from Dialogue will be “owned” by the entire group and it is more likely that everyone will be working together to make sure the solution actually works. In addition, the long term effect on the group is to increase mutual trust and cooperation.


Actions are always better based on reality than on fantasy. Yet, humans often latch onto a particular interpretation of events very quickly and with insufficient data. As a consequence, people often work within the constraints of their own limited thought patterns. Treating what is essentially and quintessentially group problem solving as a competition between people for which of two or three solutions most often results in solving the wrong problem or at best only solving a sub-problem. In addition, “solutions” arrived at in this competitive way often result in decreased effectiveness of a group over time because of growing envy, resentment and mistrust.

By contrast, Bohm Dialogue encourages people to work together with respect and to understand a problematic situation from many angles. In this way, the real or more basic problem is understood as well as how it impacts everyone present.

As Bohm points out, many people mistakenly believe the word “Dialogue” comes from the Greek word logos for truth and the Latin root di for two implying that a dialogue is a two-sided debate.  Instead, “Dialogue” comes from the Greek logos and the Greek root dia which does not mean two but through. It is coming to the truth through interaction.


Related Patterns: 

“Who Speaks for Wolf.” Reality Check.

Known Uses: (See the Incarnations section of the Wikipedia article on 2014)David Bohm referenced below). I have also had personal success running Dialogue sessions as Executive Director of the NYNEX AI lab and in SIGCHI meetings. If you explain the “rules of the game” people can fairly easily learn to Dialogue.

Quaker meetings are often run in this same fashion and the group does not “vote” to choose among a couple possible actions but instead reflects as a group until a consensus is reached.


Bohm, as I mentioned, was a quantum physicists and he likened what happens in dialogue to having people be in a “super-cooled” and therefore “super-conductive” state. When people are “agitated” to “win,” they are bouncing around like hot molecules and conducting information among them is difficult. The more you heat up a wire, the less well it conducts current or information. Near absolute zero, the wire instead becomes “superconductive.” When people relax and do not have an “axe to grind” and are not ego-invested in a predetermined outcome, they behave quite intelligently in discovering truths.


 Bohm, D. (1996). On dialogue. New York: Routledge.

Holman, P & Devane,T. (1999). The change handbook: Group methods for shaping the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together: A Pioneering Approach to Communicating in Business and in Life. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.

Krishnamurti, J. and Bohm, D. (2014). The ending of time: Where philosophy and physics meet. New York: Harper/Collins.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. Doubleday.

Shaw, P. (2002). Changing Conversations in Organizations. A complexity approach to change. London: Routledge.

Author Page on Amazon

Context-Setting Entrance


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Context Setting Entrance


It occurs to me that some readers would like to know more about Pattern Languages; the pros and cons; pointers to the research; perhaps, how to write (or find) Patterns. I will do that soon on the basis of my current understanding. I’d like to put out a few more examples first though. I find that concepts such as “Pattern” and “Pattern Language” are much better defined by example than by rule. In the meantime, here below are some pointers to give a better flavor of what this odd creature, A Pattern Language, actually looks like and whether it can be housebroken or used for hunting. As you can tell by the list below, I have tried this creature in many different circumstances. To me, it seems quite happy and affectionate. I think that when it comes to trying to work with Pattern Languages, it is necessary to treat it something like a puppy. Your attitude will be an even more important a predictor of your success than your cleverness or knowledge of the Patterns.

Let every Pattern be “frisky” and let each Pattern explore and check out odd corners of the domain (and each other). There are cases where a Pattern doesn’t apply and there are cases where no Pattern applies just as your puppy can’t do anything they want. And, there are a few places where Pattern Languages are not at all appropriate just as there are places where no pets are allowed. For example, some situations are well enough understood that they can be characterized by a mathematical formula. No need for a Pattern (or a puppy) there, though it could still be fun.

There are several “sources” of inspiration for this Pattern. First, I was struck by one of Christopher Alexander’s architectural Patterns because it resonated with one of my own pet peeves — modern buildings often give no clue as to where the blasted entrance is! Part of Pattern 110 – Main Entrance says the following:

The entrance must be placed in such a way that people who approach the building see the entrance or some hint of where the entrance is, as soon as they see the building itself.” 

To this, I say, “Amen!”

Being able to know where the entrance is, of course, is somewhat different from saying the entrance should give a clue as to what sort of behavior is appropriate once inside. In terms of my own experience however, this Pattern of Alexander’s set me to thinking about the importance of entrances.


At about the time I became aware of that Pattern, I was working at IBM Research and used a system that my wife and other friends at IBM developed called “Babble.” This was a mixed synchronous/asynchronous messaging system with wonderful functionality but a rather “unprofessional” look to it. Later, when she managed the group, she hired an extremely talented architect/designer and Babble was replaced with a much more beautiful system called Loops (as in “keeping people in the loop”). The functionality was quite similar but the second design was much more beautiful. Oddly, it never got quite so much use as the first system. I began to wonder whether it was so beautiful that people felt as though what they needed to be more formal, respectful, and serious when they wrote there.

At about the same time, I built a website with some nice graphics. This was a wiki meant for everyone in a community to use. Instead, what I got was email from people suggesting things I could add to the website. “No, it’s a wiki, I explained. You don’t need my permission. Just add what you want!” Very few takers. Later, I made it more “rough-looking” and people began adding material to it.


While traditions in a culture condition us to expect certain kinds of behavior when we go to a dry cleaners, a pub, or a cathedral, it seems that when it came to electronic media, cues were often missing or misleading. In a later project to improve search on, I noted and then explained to management that although IBM was trying to be the high price, high quality provider, their website looked, at that time (@2000) a lot more like K-Mart’s website than it did that of Harrods or Neiman Marcus. All of these specific situations led me to believe that context-setting entrances (e.g., splash screens and portals) were not being sufficiently accounted for in the design of electronic media.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on February 13, 2018


Set Appropriate Expectations


Human societies have widely different customs about what is appropriate behavior in different contexts. As people grow up in a culture, they learn when and where various actions and styles of behaving and talking are appropriate. When someone enters an unfamiliar setting, it is generally to everyone’s advantage that the new person has some idea about what is appropriate. Therefore, before the person even enters it is nice to provide the right emotional tone and mood appropriate to the current situation. In some cases, this can be done architecturally or musically. In other cases, people may be given a “program” which through typography, word choice, or images may set the tone for a gathering. By setting the context at the entrance, people understand better what is expected of them; it prevents their embarrassment and enhances the ritualistic aspects of the event as well as making the practical outcomes achieved more effectively.


Groups function better when the people in the group behave within a set of norms. For example, at a golf match, there are specific roles for contestants, caddies, audience members, officials, vendors, and the press. Each of them is expected to play a particular role with respect to the tournament. In addition to that however, there are expectations about the appropriate style. In golf, as in tennis, it is expected that the audience be quiet during actual play. Baseball and football players as well as professional fighters talk trash to each other but tennis players and golfers typically do not. If people use the “wrong” norms for the occasion, they may be embarrassed as well as upsetting the rest of the group. In some cases, such as a church service, prom, funeral, wedding, or legal proceedings, failing to follow the norms may even tend to thwart the social binding purpose of the event. For example, many things that would be “appropriate” at the bachelor or bachelorette party right before a wedding would not be appropriate as part of the post-wedding toasts. Because there are “rules” even if just one person follows those rules, it diminishes the feeling of group cohesion for everyone. In some cases, violating the norms could also have considerable practical consequences. For example, if a small town has a barn-raising event and there are assigned roles and responsibilities, someone simply “winging it” or following some completely different process of home building could be frustrating, counter-productive, or dangerous.


Cultures developed separately in many places around the world. Partly to adapt to specific conditions and partly by accident, these cultures developed different cultural practices. There are many cultures around the entire world who celebrate e.g., successes, conceptions, births, deaths, marriages, divorces, graduations, birthdays, coming of age, etc. Aside from rituals and special events, there are also particular places where one is expected to behave in a certain way or certain people such as royalty who are supposed to be addressed in certain ways. There are also particular holidays that precipitate particular behaviors, moods, rituals, etc.

To insure that everyone in the group or community knows what is expected of them, more experienced members of the group or community might conduct training, provide written materials,  to the less experience or perhaps even put some information on a “cheat sheet” of some kind.

Yet, there may always be the possibility of those without the training or instructions to become involved in a social situation with demanding rules. In such cases, it helps to set the context by the words, shapes, colors, music, architecture and thereby let people know what the proper tone should be for the occasion .

People find it very difficult to operate in a sea of ambiguity and therefore seek to find explanations and clarity very quickly. Unfortunately, people therefore tend to jump to a conclusion about someone else and that conclusion can then blind them to further information about that person, particularly when the new information is at odds with the initial impression. So, when someone behaves “badly” — too informally or too formally, for instance, many immediately think badly of them. And, they, in turn, through being embarrassed, think less of the group, event, ritual, etc. than they would have if they had simply been “clued in” as to what was expected.




  • Everyone comes to expect certain forms of behavior from others in a specific context.
  • The expectations of any one person are primarily based on their own past experiences.
  • The behavior of any other person is largely based on that person’s past experiences. 
  • People are particularly influenced in their perception of something new by their first experience.
  • Because modern cultures are often quite fluid, it often happens in the real world that people enter a Holiday, special event, ritual, building, or website that they are unfamiliar with.
  • When a person seems to be too uptight or too loose for the situation, we tend to make (and stick with) negative attributions about them.
  • When someone attempts to “fit in” to a new group or situation and fails because they couldn’t tell how they were supposed to act, they will tend to reject the group, event, or medium.
  • There are numerous clues that can be used to set a mood or predispose people to behave in certain ways.


When designing a website, application, building, party, or basically anything at all, use cues at your disposal to let people know what sorts of behavior and what styles of behavior are appropriate.



1. Motion picture use both imagery and music at the beginning to let the audience know what this movie is about and even presage how it will turn out. Consider for a moment the difference between the beginning of The Sound of Music and Jaws. In both cases, the imagery and the music are quite appropriate to the overall dramatic arc.

2. You enter a restaurant. Even before you are seated or look at a menu, based on the noise level, background music, architecture, how crowded it is, and how the people are dressed, you generally have a fairly good idea of what is appropriate and inappropriate conversation and behavior as well as what the price range is likely to be.

3. You see a book at the bookstore or on-line. Before buying the book, or indeed, even reading a few pages, you already have an impression based on the cover, the size and age of the book, the blurb, and the author’s profile what type of book this is to be. For example, and hopefully, the cover art of Turing’s Nightmares says: “This is science fiction” and “The world is going to be quite different.” The tone will be somewhat surprising and unpredictable On the other hand, the cover of The Winning Weekend Warrior” is going to be about victory and is set in the real world. The tone will be fun and happy. The dust jacket of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, looks to me quite formal and serious. It seems rather tome-like because of the sparseness of cover imagery, the typography and the presence of so many authors on the cover.

4. When it comes to social media, of course, a large part of what people “see” in the “entrance” are the posts, blogs, tweets, comments of other participants. If one wanted, for instance, to increase the chances that users were respectful, polite, or rude, one could alter the first few posts, blogs, tweets or comments that a new user saw and that could serve as a model for what was deemed most appropriate.

Resulting Context:

Generally speaking, a context setting entrance will help people behave more appropriately. This will result in less friction, fewer outcasts, greater group cohesion, and greater social capital. It may also help people choose more appropriately among various possible churches, movies, restaurants, movies and on-line venues.


Most people most of the time wish to act appropriately. Letting them know what that is increases the chances that they will be able to.

Related Patterns: 

Special Events. Greater Gathering.

Known Uses:


The strongest metaphor that leaps to mind are various “warnings” in the plant and animal kingdom; e.g., brightly colored poisonous snakes and tree frogs as well as “attractors” such as flowers use to attract bees and birds and fish use to attract potential mates.



Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobsen, M., Fiksdahl-King, I. and Angel, S. (1977), A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thomas, J. (2015). The Winning Weekend Warrior: How to succeed at golf, tennis, baseball, football, basketball, hockey, volleyball, business, life, etc.  CreateSpace/Amazon.

Thomas, J. (2016). Turing’s Nightmares: Scenarios and Speculations about “The Singularity.” CreateSpace/Amazon.



Greater Gathering


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Greater Gathering.

Author, reviewer and revision dates:

Created by John C. Thomas on Dec. 11, 2004

Reviewed by <> on <>

Revised by JCT on Feb. 7, 2018.

Prologue and Acknowledgements. 

This pattern can be found in many teams, companies, NGO’s, families, and religious organizations. If you are interested in how this happened to strike me as a pattern, feel free to read this section Otherwise, you can skip it. I began to notice this pattern after two events happened to coincide.

While working at IBM Research many years ago, I played in an inter-company tennis league in Westchester County, New York. During those matches, I met many IBMers from outside of IBM Research. One of the people I met worked in the corporate tax department. In those days, long before Google, we used a Key Word In Context system (ITERC?) to scan for potentially useful documents. Every week, I would get a long list of abstracts based on my list of keywords. This system was not nearly so accurate as what many of us have access to today. While there were many “hits” for me, there were also quite a few false positives. For example, I was interested in the psychological process of “induction” – learning a rule based on examples. I often got abstracts, however, about “induction motors.” One day, I got one of those “false positives” about a new tax law that allowed highly profitable companies like IBM to “trade” tax liabilities with companies who were struggling like the tire companies in my home town of Akron. According to the abstract, it was in the financial interests of both companies to use this “trading” mechanism. I had little interest in it, but I liked the guy I had met from corporate and we had traded contact information for tennis purposes. I sent him the abstract. As it turned out, this was precisely applicable to IBM and saved them a lot of money.

At the same time, I was reading about the history of IBM and particularly thought it interesting that they had put so much time and effort into the 100% club meetings. This was a country-wide meeting to bring together sales people from all over the US who had met or exceeded their sales quotas. I was never in sales, but even at Research, we had “annual picnics” in which everyone in IBM Research was invited to come with their families. As I began thinking about it, I realized that these kinds of “larger gatherings” were common across many different cultures, domains, and types of groups. The tax example showed a very specific financial benefit to the IBM company but I realized there were many other potential benefits as well.



Conference. Congress. Convention. Jamboree. National Holidays.


When moderate to large groups work to solve large, complex problems, it is often necessary for them to subdivide the work into distinct subgroups. This results in the group being more efficient and effective. However, it also means that each group comes to develop their own vocabulary, search for people who are particularly good at certain things,  and in various other ways, the people within the subgroup communicate a lot, come to trust each other, and have clear common interests. They are often at conflict with other subgroups for resources. In addition, there is less trust across these organizational boundaries than within such a boundary. Often, the people themselves come to be somewhat different kinds of people. Large effective groups therefore participate at least annually in a “Greater Gathering” which allows people to meet and co-mingle across these organizational boundaries. These meetings are constructed to emphasize “common ground” within the larger group. As a result, new lines of communication are lined up; mutual trust is enhanced; sometimes, real problems are solved.


As large, complex problems are broken down into pieces and assigned to different groups, efficiency and effectiveness increase. Not only that, the individuals within each of these various subgroups typically grow more trusting of each other within that sub-group.  They learn about each other’s skills and motivations, so over time, the sub-group as a whole grows more effective and efficient.

However, this high intra-group cohesion comes at a price. People in one part of an organization consider themselves the “in-group” and may begin to limit their learning because of a lack of diversity in that one perspective. Furthermore, they may come to work so hard to solve their own sub-problem that they lose sight of the larger problem and make sub-optimizing decisions. In some cases, the ideas of various subgroups about how to handle something will differ and result in conflict. Even worse, sometimes, decisions made in Group A help them a little but make life for Group B much more difficult and make the overall objective of the group, whatever it is, more difficult to achieve and no-one ever realizes it. There may be lack of trust between different sub-groups or even outright mistrust among sub-groups. Often sub-groups that are “at odds” with each other, not only have different management chains and objectives; they may also be geographically apart; they may be from different cultures; they may be of different professions, etc. For these reasons, a suspicion may grow over time while mutual trust diminishes. Information sharing becomes strained. The overall organization is not doing as well as it might nor are the people within that organization doing as well as they might.



A group of people has been attempting to accomplish some task as effectively and efficiently as possible. In order to do this, one common method is to breakdown a large, complex task into smaller, less complex tasks. Often, those people working on a subtask naturally spend more time with others on that subtask than on other subtasks. It naturally occurs in this context that since people spend a lot of time together, they may develop common interests and also spend leisure time together as well. Sharing common sub-goals, physical contexts, and leisure activities as well as working on the same subtasks may eventually lead to an “in-group” feeling.

Over time, these subgroups develop different methods, procedures, values, customs, terms of art. They become, in a sense, different sub-cultures. But just as cooperation and communication can be trickier when two historical cultures are involved, so too, it can more difficult for, say, someone from each of the legal department, the accounting department and the R&D department to understand each other than, say, three accountants. Sometimes, various departments actually want the same thing. They simply don’t know it because they are speaking different languages.

Some degree of “antagonism” of purpose is often built in to the organization. The R&D department will ask for more money. Finance will say no. But these kinds of one-sided or even two-sided or multi-sided competitions are much healthier both for the organization and its people if they are done with respect and rules. Having completely different sub-cultures can enhance the difficulty of such negotiations.


*People are naturally gregarious.

*People working on a common problem often bond as well.

*People working on a common sub-problem often lose sight of the larger problem.

*Social sanctions can lead to a lack of diversity of perspectives.

*All people share certain basic drives.

*Shared special events help build social bonds.

*People enjoy novel experiences and viewpoints, under some circumstances

*An expectation of what happens (based on story and experience) can help mold what does happen.

  • The possibility of one person harming another and not doing so increases mutual trust.
  • Shared experiences tend to increase mutual trust.


All the sub-groups that need to cooperate in a larger group should get together periodically for a meeting of “Greater Gathering.” This should be periodic and structured. Activities need to be formulated that help everyone visualize and experience common ground. Eating, drinking, dancing, singing, athletic contests, and other physical activities should also be included since these are experiences people will relate to and enjoy regardless of which sub-group they belong to or which sub-problem they are working on.



Companies generally used to have many of these events when such companies were run by people who cared about the companies and the people within those companies rather than simply caring about using companies as a tool to enhance the power and wealth of a few. For example, when I first joined IBM, they sponsored many sports leagues within IBM Research including tennis, golf, softball, and soccer. Furthermore, they participated, as in the prologue of this pattern, in sports leagues across nearby IBM locations which included sales, CHQ, Engineering, Programming and Technology, Marketing, and Advanced Ad Tech. Every year, there was an elaborate company picnic. There was a Holliday Party and fairly frequent less formal award ceremonies with refreshments. There were also numerous recognition events which were attended by people outside your sub-group.

Other examples are numerous. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have national Jamborees. Families have extended family reunions. Sometimes, these can be at a civic level such as Mardi Gras or a local annual parade that most people work on or attend.

I’ve been very active for a long time in a group called “CHI” for “Computer-Human Interaction.” It’s a Special Interest Group of the Association for Computing Machinery. (ACM). Anyway, the people who do research in this field are scattered across the globe. They work for different university departments or companies or non-profits or governments or as individual consultants. We have full professors and undergraduate students; we have people with original backgrounds in electrical engineering, philosophy, psychology, design, architecture, fine arts, English, human-computer interaction, mathematics, mechanical engineering and many more. Some are doing research whose application is out at least 20 years and others are worried about whether their start-up will survive the quarter. Some work for giant multi-nationals and others are one person companies. Every year, we have a rather challenging conference where all of these folks are invited. The conference centers around the technical program, but there are also many things meant to provide a larger gathering; to foster mutual trust; to have a great time together so that we can better respect each other, communicate more effectively and achieve common goals.


Resulting Context:

The result of the first example above is that people throughout IBM at that time almost universally thought of themselves as IBMers rather than someone from the accounting department. What this meant was that there was a high level of trust for people from other parts of the company. I’m not saying it was perfect but it was much higher with more people honestly trying to do what was best for the company rather than what was best for them or their immediate manager. Now, that’s largely reversed. Of course, it’s hard to know how much is due to the “cutting out of all the fat” like annual picnics and sport’s leagues.

In the second example, Boy Scouts get a chance to see that people of different shades of skin, creeds, geographical locations share a lot in common.

In the third example, the CHI conference continues, I believe, to be an important reason that people in such a wide variety of circumstances can collaborate and communicate so well.


It is easy to imagine that people we rarely or never see are not only different from us superficially, but that they are different in essence. If you meet people from various parts of your organization in a neutral informal situation that stresses your commonality such as a picnic, a sporting even, an ice-cream social, or a walk-a-thon, you will see that you have some common ground, trust, and makes communication easier.


Related Patterns:

Conversational Support at the Boundaries.

Known Uses:


Many species go to a common place at least annually. We humans attribute this to the benefits of cross-fertilization or more global competitions in survival of the fittest. Is it also possible that they are also exchanging information that is useful for the species as a whole?


I think I will defer, at least temporarily, to that excellent fable of Norton Juster’s: The Phantom Tollbooth. In that fable, Rhyme and Reason are banished to separate kingdoms and the results are not good.


The Iroquois Rule of Six


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Iroquois Rule of Six


The idea for this Pattern comes from the work of Paula Underwood who was the designated storyteller for her branch of the Iroquois (See references below). Of course, even she would not claim to have invented the pattern which grew out of long cultural experience.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on February 2, 2018


Don’t Jump to Conclusions, Sympathetic Reading, Give Others the “Benefit of a Doubt,” “Look before you leap!” “See the Whole Elephant”


Human beings are very complex and we only see snippets of someone else’s behavior. Yet, we are trained that it is important to quickly interpret why someone else is doing something. By the time we’re adults, when someone does something that violates our expectations, we tend to come up with an “explanation” very quickly. Furthermore, we tend to treat this explanation or interpretation as fact when, in many cases, we have only a very small amount of actual data to depend on. A misinterpretation of someone’s motivation can quickly cause bad feelings on everyone’s part. Therefore, according to the Iroquois “Rule of Six,” before you act on the basis of your initial interpretation, you are advised to think of at least five other interpretations and try to gain evidence about these six or more hypotheses before taking action.


Groups function better under a wide variety of circumstances if there is a high degree of internal mutual trust. If people work together over a long period of time, trust will develop if warranted. While we sometimes know some of what’s going on in someone else’s life, we only know a very small proportion of what is going on, even if it’s someone we are very close to and spend a lot of time with. In work groups or teams, the proportion of the whole of someone else’s situation that we see is very small indeed. This is even more true when we are trying to work in a new or ad hoc group. We feel it’s important to understand the motivations of others and what they are likely to do. Often, we therefore jump to conclusions about others that are far from the truth. When we act on such incorrect premises, it can derail progress toward solving a problem and damage trust and relationships for the future as well.


Complex problems and large problems can often only be solved by groups. For the group to work well together to solve ill-defined or wicked problems, it is useful for them to understand each other’s situations and motivations. We generally come to expect others to do certain things based on logic, authority, agreement, trust, the current situation and other factors. In fact, it’s often hard to understand even our own motivations or to predict what we ourselves will do in novel situations.

People are often in a hurry to make progress on solving problems. Thus, when someone does appear to violate our expectations, we are tempted to come up with a “reason” for their behavior. However, because people are complex and situations that require cooperation and coordination are also complex, we seldom actually know why a person does something. There are things about them that we may be unaware of such as their physiological state (e.g., tired, sick, on drugs, low blood sugar). There are also things about their situation that we are unlikely to know about (e.g., time pressure, lack of appropriate training, unusual experiences, knowledge beyond our ken).

People find it very difficult to operate in a sea of ambiguity and therefore seek to find explanations and clarity very quickly. Unfortunately, people therefore tend to jump to a conclusion about someone else and that conclusion can then blind them to further information about that person, particularly when the new information is at odds with the initial impression.



  • Everyone comes to expect certain forms of behavior from others in a specific context.
  • The expectations of any one person are primarily based on their own experiences.
  • The behavior of any other person is largely based on that person’s experiences.
  • The behavior of another person can also be heavily influenced by that other person’s situation.
  • Each person only knows a small proportion of another person’s situation.
  • When faced with another person’s violation of expectations, people tend to quickly generate an explanation of why that person did what they did.
  • Because of “confirmation bias,” once a person comes up with an explanation of anything (including why someone did something), they tend to look for evidence to support their initial explanation.


When a person comes up with an explanation of someone else’s behavior, they should generate at least five other hypotheses and then seek evidence for and against all six hypotheses before taking action.


1. A babysitter is put in charge of an infant. The baby cries and the babysitter assumes it is hungry and feeds it. Yet, the baby keeps crying. The babysitter assumes it is still hungry and tries to feed it more but the baby refuses food and keeps crying any way. She tries a variety of foods but the baby doesn’t seem to like any of them. Rather than assuming that the baby is hungry and keep trying to find a food the baby will like, according to the Iroquois Rule of Six, the sitter might consider other hypotheses; e.g, the baby might have gas, have a wet diaper, be sick, miss her parents, or (as was actually the case) have a diaper pin stuck through her skin.

2. You have an important project meeting with Jerry Jones on your calendar for 10 am in room 435. You are sitting at the table but Jerry Jones is nowhere to be seen. The clock on the wall says 10:10. Still no Jerry Jones. You think to yourself, “Well, okay, fine. Obviously, Jerry doesn’t really care about this project.”

That kind of thought is a normal human reaction. Unfortunately, once the thought occurs to you, it is easy to now treat your interpretation of events as a fact about Jerry’s commitment to the project.

The Iroquois recognized this tendency and the “Rule of Six” suggests that before taking any action, you should first generate at least six interpretations, not just one. In this particular hypothetical case, several come to mind.

  1. Jerry doesn’t care about the project so he’s not coming or doesn’t care how late he is.
  2. Jerry comes from a culture where 10:10 is not actually late for a 10 am meeting.
  3. Jerry was unattainably delayed.
  4. You wrote down the wrong room for the meeting.
  5. You are not actually in room 435.
  6. You are in room 435 but in the wrong building.
  7. You wrote down the wrong time.
  8. The clock on the wall is wrong.
  9. You wrote down the wrong day for the meeting.
  10. 10. Jerry sent you email asking to change the meeting time but you didn’t check your email.

3. You and your tennis doubles partner are in a crucial match. Your partner keeps serving up weak second serves and your opponents both keep running around their backhands and zinging heavy forehand shots at your body. You’ve already been hit twice because you cannot react quickly enough even to defend yourself. You conclude that your partner must be trying to get you killed and you tell them so. In this case, despite your interpretation, it seems exceedingly unlikely that your partner is literally trying to get you killed. If they are, this is a singularly ineffective way to do it. In fact, despite your having said this to your partner, it’s unlikely you really even believe it yourself. But even thinking this may have several bad effects. First, having told your partner this is bound to make them trust you less. Second, it will make your partner more up-tight and probably make an even worse serve or double fault more likely. Third, it prevents you from finding out what might really be going on. For some odd reason, even though you know in your heart that it is not a likely explanation, the mere having of the thought (and even more so telling your partner) actually makes it less likely that you will try to find more reasonable interpretations. Fourth, it keeps you from working with your partner to find a solution. Other (and, in this case, much more likely partial explanations) include:

  1. Your partner wants to avoid having you hit at the net so badly that they keep trying to hit an ace on their first serve.
  2. Your partner wants to avoid a double fault at all costs so “powder puffs” their second serve.
  3. Your partner has a sore shoulder.
  4. Your partner thinks your opponents like pace and that a slow serve will throw off their timing.
  5. Your partner thinks your opponents are overhitting the returns of their second serves and that the balls would fly way long if you would just duck or get out of the way.
  6. Your partner knows that you want to improve your net game and thinks you will enjoy the challenge of hard hit balls and eventually improve your net game.
  7. Your partner is really being bothered by the sun right now and is finding serving very difficult because, no matter how they try their toss is right in the sun.
  8. Your partner knows that you want both of you to be at net as soon as possible and is therefore concentrating to hard on rushing the net that they are not paying enough attention to first finishing the service motion itself before charging to the net.

In this tennis example, imagining your partner wants to kill you does not suggest any appropriate action to fix the problem. Possible actions that might help you win the tennis match could include getting your partner to hit a slightly less aggressive first serve and a slightly more aggressive second serve, making sure that they know that even thought it’s obviously not desirable to double fault, it’s not the world’s greatest sin either; asking your partner if they are okay physically and if not, coming up with a different plan; playing back on the second serve; moving more at the net to distract your opponents during the return; lending your partner your sun glasses; playing Australian (squatting near the center of the court and signaling your partner which way you will go right before they serve); making sure that your own serve is as different as possible from your partner’s serve thereby making both your serve and theirs more difficult to return; at the outset of the next set, test out more carefully which of you should be serving into the sun.


4. Although generally conceived of as a useful “best practice” in teams or groups, this “rule” can also be applied when it comes to problem solving in general. In particular, it could be particularly useful when resolving issues among two different groups, tribes, companies, or countries. While you pretty much know that the idea your tennis partner is trying to kill you is silly, if you’re part of a group of people who repeat such preposterous stories to each other enough, you will strongly come to believe such stories as the only possible explanation. Thus, a negotiator may try to bring about peace, or at least a ceasefire, between two warring parties, A and B. A thinks to themselves, “OK, I’ll sit down and talk but I know damned well B’s real purpose is to destroy me.” Meanwhile, of course, B is thinking, “OK, I’ll sit down and talk, but I know damned well A’s real purpose is to destroy me.” Ideally, you would like each side to consider the Iroquois Rule of Six. In fact, although this will be discussed in much more detail later, the very fact that they both distrust each other so much could be the initial starting point for finding common ground. Perhaps applying the Iroquois Rule of Six is something they could work on together. They might agree that there could be other motivations for X to fight Y aside from X trying to destroy Y and vice versa.

5. In a workshop I co-organized on “Cross-Cultural Issues in Human Computer Interaction,” we used a card game called Barnga (

In this game, much like Bridge, Whist, Eucher, people play a car in turn face up and the one with the “highest” car wins that “trick” (those four cards). The participants are shown a brief description of the game but not allowed to talk (to simulate the difficulties of cross-cultural communication). This is meant for groups of at least 12 in which case you would divide the 12 into 3 tables of four each. Each table plays for awhile and then the winners and losers move respectively “up” or “down” one table. So far, the participants at each table have been playing by the same set of rules. However, the three tables have three different sets of rules. For instance, at one table there is no trump. At another table spades are trump. (The 2 of a trump card beats any non-trump card). At another table, aces are the lowest car in the deck rather than the highest. Now, people who have learned and operated under different sets of rules try to play together. Well, of course, two people will both reach for the same “trick.”

What is interesting in the context of the Iroquois Rule of Six is that people almost always had one of two first thoughts: “What is wrong with that person? They’re so stupid!” or “What is wrong with that person? They’re such a cheater!” Remember, that these were people who had come together from around the world precisely to talk about cross-cultural issues! And, yet, not only was their first interpretation wrong, it impugned the other as being evil or incompetent. Most people from every culture do follow the rules of that culture. Rules often differ from culture to culture. Thinking about the Iroquois Rule of Six may help you remember that.


Resulting Context:

Generally speaking, the application of the Iroquois Rule of Six will tend to greatly lessen the chances that teamwork will be disrupted by bad feelings. In addition, if one takes the time to consider and gain evidence about alternative hypotheses, one will learn more about others and base decisions on fact rather than fantasy. Having a wide range of hypotheses, even when it is difficult to gather enough evidence to prove conclusively which one is correct, will greatly widen the scope of consideration of various solutions. In adversarial situations, the Iroquois Rule of Six might at least move people to consider bargaining on the basis of actual needs and desires rather than pre-established positions based on misinterpretations of another groups motives.

Of course, I do not mean to suggest that all conflicts are based on misperceptions of someone else’s motives. In some situations, a finite resource may be in contention by multiple parties. (Even here, it’s possible for the three to agree on a scheme of determination; e.g., rotation, lottery, third-party adjudication, etc.).


Actions are always better based on reality than on fantasy. Yet, humans often latch onto a particular interpretation of events very quickly and with insufficient data. The Iroquois Rule of Six reminds people to generate alternative hypotheses and gather evidence before acting.

Related Patterns: 

Reality Check, Check-In.

Known Uses:

Science often approximates doing business in a similar spirit. Scientists are subject to the same sort of “jumping to conclusions” as is everyone else. During their training however, mentors, colleagues, students, professors, and journal editors will constantly be asking the fledgeling scientist to consider various other hypotheses and not simply be satisfied with the first one that pops into mind. In addition, the scientist will be shown how to find evidence capable of disproving their hypothesis.

In Rational-Emotive Therapy, the therapist often tries to get the client to consider alternatives and consequences. Among the alternatives that need most to be encouraged are attributions about other people’s motives.

In Gerri Spence’s highly recommended book, How to argue and win every time, he suggests that when someone in your family is angry with you, rather than getting angry back, instead, you “follow the hurt.” Try to discover what is hurting them. This is not precisely the same idea as The Iroquois Rule of Six, but it seems a cousin. Your initial reaction to anger is often anger. Along with that emotion typically goes some negative attribution about the other person; e.g., “What an A-Hole!” “You’re such an idiot!” “I didn’t put your sweater back? Yeah? How about the time you wrecked my bike?” Rather than sticking with these first impressions, try to uncover what’s really going on. By focusing on the real problem, rather than being blinded by your own emotional reaction, you’ll be more likely to work on a team to solve the underlying problem.


The strongest metaphor that leaps to mind is life itself. No form of life continues to make unaltered copies of itself forever. There is always variation in the next generation. Life never “sticks” to only one hypothesis.

The second metaphor is human learning. Although it’s annoying that I cannot ever seem to “perfect” my tennis stroke, by the same token, human motor behavior always has some “variation” in it. As we learn to gain more and more skill, we tend to keep those variations that are better. (There are limitations to this approach, but in the current context, the point is that we are not robots and never stick to precisely one way of doing things).  


Spence, G. (1995). How to Argue and Win Every Time: At home, at work, in court, everywhere, every day. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

 Underwood, P. (1993). The Walking People: An American Oral History. San Anselmo, CA: Tribe of Two Press.

Underwood, P. (1994). Three Strands in the Braid: A Guide for Enablers of Learning. San Anselmo, CA: Tribe of Two Press.

Meaningful Initiation


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Meaningful Initiation


I have mixed feelings about the phenomenon of “initiation.” I’d be very interested to hear about other people’s experiences, intuitions, and studies related to this very common social phenomenon.


Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on January 29, 2018



Appropriate Initiation


Persistent social groups typically require people who want to join the group to pass an initiation ceremony, rite, or test. Some of these “initiations” include meaningful tests of skill, knowledge, or loyalty. Such initiations prevent people who are deemed unworthy or not ready from joining the group. This has several additional effects. People who pass the initiation, especially if it is severe, value the group more. The initiation also tends to prevent people who do not really value the group enough (or even seek to subvert it) from joining. In addition, people who have no interest in joining the group may also value it more highly if they know it is difficult to join. Initiations may be severe by virtue of having the test of skill itself be difficult, or by requiring endurance, pain, or embarrassment on the part of the would-be joiner.


Groups function better under a wide variety of circumstances if there is a high degree of internal mutual trust. If people work together over a long period of time, trust will develop if warranted. However, often even a newcomer to a group can cause chaos and mistrust due to lack of experience, competence, or in some cases, intentionally. Groups therefore need some way to ensure that everyone in the group is minimally competent, values the group and works for the group’s benefit, not just their individual benefit. It’s important for the group work that everyone value the group and trust each other.


Complex problems and large problems can often only be solved by groups. For the group to work well together to solve ill-defined or wicked problems, they need to have a common way of communicating, have knowledge of what each other knows, and have a high degree of trust. At the other extreme, consider slaves chained to their oars, slaves picking cotton, or even volunteers, each of whom scans a very small pre-assigned segment of the night sky. In these cases, someone outside the group is typically “in charge” and the cooperation and coordination required among the members of the group is determined, not by the group, but by an overseer. As the problem space becomes more complex however, it becomes more and more necessary for the group to be able to re-prioritize, re-arrange how they work together, and even for fundamental values and goals to evolve. In these latter contexts, it is very important for the group members to share common experiences and trust each other.

In some cases, the normal progression of education, joining a sports league or becoming a full-fledged member of a profession has an initiation aspect even if its accidental. For instance, becoming a tennis professional will require submitting to the requests of coaches and doing a lot of repetition of the fundamentals. It may also require many hours of working out for flexibility, strength, balance, and cardio fitness. In addition, as the person gains skill, their opponents and the venues will tend to produce more and more stressful situations that must be mastered in order to progress to the next level. Similarly, to become a medical doctor requires hundreds of hours of study as well as practical, hands on experiences which will typically require higher and higher levels of skill and stress. Sometimes there are actual specific ritual initiations in addition, but sometimes the structure of the profession itself serves an initiative function.



  • If someone works harder, or suffers more pain or embarrassment to be accepted into a group, they will tend to value the group more (though this findings has not always been replicated).
  • For groups to work well together, they need common ways to communicate.
  • Common experiences tend to increase mutual trust.
  • For many groups, it is vital that the members of the group are selected so as to have adequate speed, strength, vision, courage, training, skill, or other characteristics.
  • Groups which are perceived to be very difficult to join may be viewed as being higher prestige than those which are easy to join.
  • Groups with higher prestige may enjoy more benefits from the larger society such as special laws, exceptions to general regulations, or a better pool of candidates.
  • Some people may use the excuse of an initiation in order to satisfy their own need to inflict cruelty on others regardless of the impact of that cruelty on the individual being initiated or on the effectiveness and cohesion of the group.


Before someone is allowed to join a group, they have to “prove themselves” by undergoing an initiation. This insures they have some minimal qualifications. It also increases the strength of loyalty, social capital, and trust within the group. It may also increase the “cachet” of the group among others.


As Royal Dutch Petroleum was nearing its hundredth year of existence, they commissioned Aries de Gues to find out whether corporations ever existed as long as a century and if so, what were the characteristics. He found that indeed, there were companies that old and they had four common characteristics. One was a high degree of mutual trust. A second was “strong boundaries.” This latter characteristic meant that it was difficult to join such companies and people tended to stay for a long time. Both these characteristics are logically related to having meaningful initiations. (The other two are not strongly related to this Pattern; Tolerance for Exploration at the Edges and Financial Conservatism).


See link for examples of religious initiations:

Many so-called “primitive” cultures had initiations and rites of passage. Here are a few references.

Resulting Context:

Presumably and hopefully, the resulting context is a self-sustaining group over time whose members trust each other, communicate well, and highly value their group membership.


Initiations are supposed to have these benefits: 1) The initiation screens out anyone who is incapable or not sufficiently interested to undergo bad things in order to join the group. 2) The initiation causes members of the group to value the group more highly. 3) The initiation provides a common experience that all group members can share. 4) The initiation may make the group seem more “selective” to people outside.

Related Patterns: 

Special Roles; Strong Boundaries; Levels of Trust; Bell, Book, and Candle; Apprenticeships; Official Sanctions of Competency.

Known Uses:

College fraternities and sororities, clubs, sports teams, commercial groups in many settings, military groups, religious groups, and professional societies among others, all require tests and/or initiations before one becomes a full-fledged member. In some cases, such as a Ph.D. dissertation and defense, the “initiation” is mainly a test and an educational experience, but there is often an “endurance” aspect as well. While college fraternity initiations may include tests of knowledge of the participants; e.g., about the fraternity, it’s origins and members; it seems mainly to require the pledge to endure humiliation, discomfort, endurance and sometimes physical danger.

Known Misuses:

(Note: This is not a standard section in the Patterns of a Pattern Language. In this case, I think it’s important. While I do think this overall Pattern can be a useful one, it is particularly prone to misuse as well. I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts and experiences of initiations and what could be done to insure that this is a positive pattern.)

College fraternities in particular are known for so-called “hazing” that sometimes results in deaths. The most common cause of death is from drinking too much alcohol in too short a period of time.

Although part of what internships for medicine do is teaching and testing the ability of doctors to handle pressure, the schedules and attitudes often seem to include an element of cruelty and possibly even danger to the health and well-being of both interns and patients. Many professionals in other fields as well have experienced abuse of one sort or another from superiors during or associated with such tests.

In the movie, A Few Good Men, a commander orders a “Code Red” on a recruit who has repeatedly fallen short in various physical tests. The recruit dies. It turns out that his inability to perform some of the physical requirements of Marine training were because of an undiagnosed heart problem. This is at least arguably an example (albeit fictional) of initiation gone horribly wrong. Even though the fallen soldier was “in” the Marines, he was still in basic training which consists of a combination of skills training, conditioning, and repeated “initiation rituals.”


When I was a Boy Scout, my “initiation” consisted of supposedly being branded by a hot poker. Three of us were to be initiated during a week-end long camp outing. The kids who were already in the troop were in the main common room and we three were told to wait our turn in another, smaller room. The main room had a roaring fire and fireplace tools including a poker. I volunteered to go first. I was blindfolded and led into the main room where I had to lay down on a bench next to the fire. My shirt was pulled up and after a few minutes, when my torso felt hot from the fire, an ice cube was laid on my stomach. As you can easily verify for yourself, if you sense both hot and cold at the same time, it produces a burning sensation. I was instructed to scream bloody murder for the benefit of the guys still in the other room. As best I can recall at the time, I had been fairly well convinced that I was not actually going to be branded. (But either way, I thought it better to go first). For one thing, I had been swimming with all these guys and never noticed any kind of a scar that would be consistent with being branded with a hot poker. The second guy went through a similar procedure and was also told to scream bloody murder. After his “branding” the troop members took a towel and put ketchup on it to simulate blood. They took this in to show the third and last one of tonight’s “initiates.” The two of us who had already been initiated still moaned mournfully as though in pain, as per our instructions. When the boys went to blindfold and bring the last initiate in however, he completely freaked out. He not only refused; he fought as though his life depended on it, punching, kicking, biting, and otherwise wreaking mayhem on the older and larger boys who were trying to subdue him for the initiation. Realizing how extreme was his fear, they tried to intimate that he was not really going to be branded but this last boy was far too wound up to pay attention to what was being “intimated.” The troop eventually gave up on his initiation. That boy was seriously traumatized. I can’t really say whether he ever believed us that no-one really meant him physical damage, but he never looked any of us in the eye again or spoke much during the remainder of the camping trip. He never asked for another go at an initiation and, to the best of my recollection, everyone else in the troop felt very bad. Rather than increase social cohesion in the group, this misadventure backfired completely. Whatever the reason, this particular troop soon disbanded. This example serves as a cautionary tale about “initiations” because none of the people involved foresaw this particular outcome or were operating out of conscious cruelty.

Early in high school, I got a volunteer job as a “Y leader” at the local YMCA. I basically taught and supervised younger kids in basketball and various fitness tests. My manager was a young man probably in college. He said I would have to pass a “test” first which consisted, basically, of doing a chore for him; I was supposed to go to a nearby department store and pick up a shade that he had bought and paid for. I went to the department store but no-one in the drapery department had the least knowledge of this guy and the shade he had supposedly bought. I had to return empty handed and figured I had failed my “test.” He explained, however, that he hadn’t bought window shades but lamp shades. Back to the store I trudged and returned with his lamp shades. It all struck me as weird and irrelevant to my job as a Y-leader. But there was more to come.

In order to be fully admitted into this little “club” of the Y-leaders we had to go through an initiation. We had several weeks to memorize every athletic record of that local Y, as well as their times or weights or distances. There was also additional material about the procedures and the hierarchy of the YMCA and so on. Then, we came to the initiation night. I think there were four of us who were initiates. We initiates took turns and had to answer questions given by this same manager mentioned above. While doing this, we stared into a very bright light. He was behind the light so that I could only see a slight shadow of the outline of his head. He and the rest of the Y leaders called us “worms” during this little ritual. On the other hand, the initiates were supposed to begin and end each of our utterances with “sir.” Well, I hadn’t really cared much about the material and quickly got three wrong. Now, I was given a choice: I could either delay being initiated and try again next month, or I could take 40 whacks with a wooden paddle. I opted for the 40 whacks. I had been paddled before with wooden paddles, but never more than a few times.

As I soon discovered, there was another crucial difference. My other paddling had been by teachers. Although they certainly wanted to make the paddling punishment hurt, they also certainly wanted to avoid a lawsuit. Although back then, lawsuits were not so plentiful as raindrops, there were some. In any case, I don’t think any of them actually wanted to physically injure us. This paddling was done by all the boys who were already Y leaders. This paddling was done by my peers. They were not adults but young teen-aged boys. As they took their turns, a few went easy on me and most hit fairly hard — around “teacher” velocity. Two brothers, however, had some kind of sadistic streak. They took several steps forward during the “wind-up” and swung the paddle with both hands like a baseball bat. Anyway, I “passed” the initiation. My backside was black and blue however, not just on my buttocks, which I would have been capable of hiding, but also on the back of my thighs. Two of my co-initiates also received 40 whacks. The last guy had taken the task very seriously and knew an incredible amount of trivia about a bunch of local athletes. But as he answered question after question, the manager simply made the questions more and more obscure, venturing well outside the scope of what we had been told we needed to learn. I realized that the point of the whole exercise was not to have us learn anything but to get to have us paddled. At last, the last boy got three wrong, but to my surprise, when it came to the question, he said he would study again for next month.

Eventually, my parents found out (because the bruising was visible, not just on my buttocks but all the way down the back of my legs) and complained to the Y about this whole initiation. Again, this “initiation” seems to have backfired in every sense. One has to wonder whether overly powerful initiation rituals are also part of why sexual abuse and child abuse often go unreported when it occurs in certain tightly knit groups. Initiation is a tool that needs to be used appropriately, carefully, and protected from the misuse of those who are really interested in inflicting cruelty to others merely under the ruse of carrying out an “initiation.” Need initiations be “secret”? They often are and this increases the tendency for them to be subject to perversion from being what is potentially good for the group into a private exercise in cruelty.


A sperm cell, whether human animal or flowering plant, must be healthy enough to traverse some distance before getting to an egg. It then has to penetrate the cell wall of the egg. While we do not expect the sperm to therefore “value” the joining with the egg, this process does perform a kind of screening function.

In some team competitions, there are a series of “rounds” before the final round. One could think of these earlier rounds as a kind of trial that has some aspects of initiation. Only the best teams continue on in further into the tournament. In addition, it probably also has the effect of increasing social capital within the team.

Apprenticeship programs often require new apprentices to perform the most menial tasks. This process of gradually assigning more responsibility as the initiate gains more skill is necessary for safe and productive work, but it also may partly serve an initiation function as well.



Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59(2), 177-181.

De Gues, Arie. (1997), The Living Company. London: Nicholas Brealy.

Gerard, H. & Matthewson, G. (1966),  The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group: a replication, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2(3), 278-287.

Walsh, A. (1990). Becoming an American and liking it as a function of social distance and severity of initiation. Sociological Inquiry, 60(2), 177-189.

Radical Collocation


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Radical Collocation.

(This Pattern was initially inspired by a talk at CSCW 2000 — see reference — and the Socio-Technical Pattern Language Workshop at CSCW).

Author, reviewer and revision dates:

Created by John C. Thomas on 5th Sept., 2001.

Reviewed by <> on <>

Revised by JCT on Dec. 17, 2001, January 25, 2018.


“Put the team in one room for the duration of the project”, “War rooms”


When small to medium teams of people need to solve a problem or design a novel solution and there are many highly interactive parts, it is useful for the people to work in one large room where people have easy access to each other and shared work objects can be easily viewed, modified, and referred to when necessary.


Some problems are amenable to decomposition; that is, the overall problem can be broken down into a series of subproblems and when each of the subproblems is solved, the overall problem will be solved, possibly with slight modification to some of the sub-solutions. In other cases, especially problems that are relatively novel, complex, or “wicked”, such decomposition is not possible. In such cases, if a decomposition is attempted and each of the subproblems is solved, the resulting composition of sub-solutions will typically not be anything close to an overall solution. Under these circumstances, people working alone on their subproblem will become frustrated because all the progress they thought they had made will prove illusory. Morale will suffer. Management will become upset that the apparent progress has not been real and typically attempt a variety of counter-productive measures such as requiring more frequent reports and adding new personnel to meet a schedule.


In the design of complex systems with many interacting parts, it is often the case that understanding how best to “decompose” a problem cannot be determined ahead of time. Examples include complex software systems, especially where the overall system includes human-human and human-computer interaction, new machinery, novel nuclear power plant designs, complex military operations.

In such a context, handing out separate “assignments” to various individuals or small teams will at first seem to produce progress as each individual or small team carries out their assignment. Unfortunately, when an attempt is made to compose or integrate these sub-solutions into an overall solution, the result doesn’t work because of unanticipated interactions.

For instance, suppose that a software development team is designing an integrated office support package. Independently, various teams or individuals design various functions. Each of these may be well-designed in itself. However, the combination will be flawed on at least three counts. First, numerous functions will have been duplicated in separate modules. Second, some functionality that would have been useful for the whole package will not have been implemented at all because it would have been too much work for any one team. Third, the user experience will be scattered and inconsistent as separate designers make independent choices about what the user experience will be. In addition, it is quite likely that hard bugs will also be in the design due to the inconsistent treatment of data objects, deadlocks, infinite loops, etc.

There are two main general solutions common in the software development community. First, there may be an attempt to set “ground rules” or “style guides” that everyone is supposed to follow. These will help ameliorate the problem but cannot solve it entirely. Second, there may be overall project meetings where people report on progress or even do mutual design reviews. Again, this helps but even if problems are found and resolved, the resolution will re-quire considerable rework.

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*People are naturally gregarious.

*People can concentrate better on difficult mental tasks when it is quiet and when there are a minimum of interruptions.

*Some problems are amenable to decomposition into relatively independent sub-problems; others are not.

*Social cues can be used to guide the interruptibility of others.

*Having work-related shared artifacts that can be viewed and understood by others continually leads to productivity.

*Shuffling work artifacts in and out of view in a small space takes time.

*Space costs money and is therefore limited.

*A group will tend to develop useful social conventions when they are co-located.

*Noticing and resolving conflicts among sub-solutions early will result in minimizing rework.

*Noticing common problems and solving them collectively as soon as possible will result in maximum efficiency.

*Human performance often shows a “social facilitation” effect; that is, people perform better in the presence of others.

  • The possibility of one person harming another and not doing so increases mutual trust.
  • Shared experiences tend to increase mutual trust.


When small to medium sized teams work on non-decomposable problems, it is useful for them to be radically co-located in one large room. This room should provide each person some private space and individual work tools (e.g., a computer, a drawing table) as well as numerous spaces for public display of large scale work artifacts (e.g., designs, work plans, diagrams, decisions, group rules, etc.).


In the Manhattan Project, people from all over the country were relocated to a relatively remote and isolated area. There they had large workrooms to work on complex problems together.

Recently, automobile companies have empirically compared software work teams that were radically co-located with traditional software development and found the former to be significantly more productive. Interestingly, although before the experience, people thought that they would hate working in a single room, afterwards they said they preferred it.

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Resulting Context:

Prior to the experiments at the auto companies, developers were afraid that they would be too distracted by noise and interruptions to get much work done. In fact, social cues can be read fairly well and a potential interrupter can gauge the time to interrupt. In radical co-location, a person might have to wait minutes or hours to resolve an issue by conversation and mutual problem solving. In traditional software development, they may have to wait for a weekly meeting or not discover a problem until integration testing. People working under conditions of radical co-location tend to develop common vocabulary and artifacts quickly and can easily and efficiently refer to these artifacts. Motivationally, it is also easier to see where the individual’s work fits into the larger whole. Having had many face to face interactions, the group now has more social capital.


In a complex problem solving process, it is most efficient to solve the most difficult constraints first. Similarly, the sooner potential design conflicts or potential design commonalities are discovered, the more efficient the global optimization. Social groups that work together can rely on subtle cues about whether to interrupt or not. Being alone in the office may seem more conducive to concentration but is still amenable to a knock on the door or a phone call; in this case, the per-son interrupting generally does not know the state of concentration of the person being interrupted. When we work separately, it is easy to imagine that others are “slacking off.” If we actually see all of our colleagues working, it tends to motivate us to work harder as well.

Related Patterns:

Conversational Support at the Boundaries.

Who Speaks for Wolf?

Known Uses:

War rooms, command centers, trials.


The human body is mainly organized at one level into organs. These organs are generally completely co-located. Your brain cells are near other brain cells; spleen cells are near other spleen cells; bone cells are mainly near other brain cells. This is true in most (but not all) other species.

For many millennia, humans were hunter/gatherers. In some cases, our very distant ancestors may well have simply eaten “on the go” just as some of us still do off path-hugging berry bushes. But long ago, we gathered food, processed it, categorized it, re-shuffled it into various stews. All of these processes were typically done by a subgroup of the people. This co-work is at least one quite natural way to work.

Why is education arranged the way it is: into courses, lectures, topics, and so on? Why not just bombard kids with random facts from a computer? There are many reasons but one main one is that learning about a subject in a coherent way may help you see the larger coherence of the subject area.


Once upon a time, there were three little lemur sisters and they each went to provide some shelter for themselves from the elements as well as protection from the ferocious leopards that roamed their forest. The first little lemur wanted her home to be as gigantic as possible. So, she fashioned some sticks and put them widely spaced over a large area. Unfortunately, the lemur had no trouble whatsoever going between these widely spaced sticks and he ate up the first little lemur.

The second little lemur, having learned from her sister’s unfortunate demise made a much, much tighter circle. In fact, her sticks were so tightly packed that she could not really lie down and sleep. After several days, she could stand it no longer so she went outside to hunt and sleep and was eaten by the roaming leopard.

The third little lemur, having learned from both of her two younger sisters’ untimely demises, instead struck a deal with the leopard. “You know,” said the lemur, “I can climb very high into the treetops. And from there, I can see for many miles around and advise you on your best direction for prey. In return, you don’t eat me. And, that would not be to your advantage anyway because then you’d have to revert to your old way of using guesswork to find prey.”

Instead of helping the leopard, the third little lemur used his high position to mislead the leopard and warn the prey through intermediaries. At last, the leopard grew quite weary and hungry and demanded to see the third little lemur about their deal.

“Sure, I’ll be right down!” The third little lemur had carried only a single stick up to his high nest. But he had sharpened with his teeth. She sprang upon the leopard jamming the spear deep into its soft underbelly.

The moral of the story is: if you combine the collective experiences of people with relevant knowledge and use creative problem solving, you’re likely to be able to solve any problem.


Bos, N., Olson, J., Gergen, D., Olson, G. & Wright, Z. (2002) Effect of four computer-mediated communication channels on trust development, pp. 135-140. Proceedings of CHI 2002, New York: ACM.

Olson, G. & Olson, J. (2000) Distance matters. Human Computer Interaction. 15 (2,3), 139-178.

Teasley, S., Covi, L., Krishnan, M., & Olson, J. (2002). How does radical collocation help a team succeed? pp. 339-346.  In Proceedings of CSCW 2000. New York: ACM.