Support Both Flow & Breakdown

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Support Both Flow & Breakdown

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Prolog/Acknowledgement/History: 

Only a few days after moving into our San Diego home (with a beautiful drip-irrigated garden), I glanced outside to see a geyser sprouting about ten feet into the air. San Diego can only survive long term if people conserve water! Yet, here we were — wasting water. I rushed outside to turn off the sprinkler system. As I ran to the controller, I noted in passing that the nearby yard lay soaked with pools of water. I turned off the sprinklers — except for the geyser which continued its impersonation of “Old Faithful.” I tried turning the valve on that particular sprinkler and did manage in that way to completely soak myself but the water waste continued unabated. We called the gardener who knew and explained the location of the shutoff valve for the entire house and garden. Later, he came and replaced the valve with a newer type. The old type, which had failed, failed by being stuck in the fully ON position!

Often in the course of my life, I have been frustrated by interacting with systems — whether human or computer — that were clearly designed with a different set of circumstances than the one I found myself in at the time. In a sense, the Pattern here is a specific instance of a broader design Pattern: Design for Broad Range of Contexts. The specific example that I want to focus on in this Pattern is that design should support the “normal” flow of things when they are working well, but also be designed to support likely modes of breakdown.

During the late 1970’s, I worked with Ashok Malhotra and John Carroll at IBM Research on a project we called “The Psychology of Design.” We used a variety of methods, but one was observing and talking with a variety of designers in various domains. One of the things we discovered about good designers was a common process that at first seemed puzzling. Roughly speaking, designers would abstract from a concrete situation, a set of requirements. They would then create a design that logically met all the requirements. Since we were only studying design and not the entire development process (which might include design, implementation, debugging, etc.) it might seem that the design process would end at that point. After all, the designer had just come up with a design that fulfilled the requirements.

What good designers actually did however, at least on many occasions, was to take their abstract design and imagine it operating back in the original concrete situation. When they imagined their design working in this concrete reality they often “discovered” additional requirements or interactions among design elements or requirements that were overlooked in the initial design. While unanticipated effects can occur in purely physical systems, (e.g., bridges flying apart from the bridge surface acting like a wing; O-rings cracking at sufficiently cold temperatures), it seems that human social systems are particularly prone to disastrous designs that “fulfill” the requirements as given.

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The Pattern here specifically focuses on one very common oversight. Systems are often designed under the assumption that everything in the environment of the system is working as it “should” or as intended. This particular type of breakdown was featured in an important theoretical paper authored by Harris and Henderson and presented at CHI 99. That paper claimed systems should be “pliant” rather than rigid. A common example most readers have had with a non-pliant system is to call an organization and be put into an automated call-answering system that does not have the appropriate category anywhere for the current situation but still does not have a way to get through to a human operator.

A telling example from their CHI Proceedings article is that of a paper-based form that was replaced with a computerized system with fixed fields. So, for example, there were only so many characters for various address fields. When someone needed to make an exception to the address syntax with a paper form, it was easy. They could write: “When it’s time to ship the package, please call this number to find out which port the Captain will be in next and ship it there: 606-555-1212.” In the computerized form, this was impossible. In fact, there were so many such glitches that the workers who actually needed to get their work done used the “required” “productivity-enhancing” computer system and also duplicated everything in the old paper system so that they could actually accomplish their tasks.

As part of the effort (described in the last blog post) to get IBM to pay more attention to the usability of its products, we pushed to make sure every development lab had a usability lab that was adequately equipped and staffed. This was certainly a vital component. However, usability in the lab did not necessarily ensure usability in the field. There are many reasons for that and I collaborated with Wendy Kellogg in the late 1980’s to catalog some of those. This effort was partly inspired by a conversation with John Whiteside, who headed the usability lab for Digital Equipment Corporation. They brought people who used a word processor into their usability lab and made numerous improvements in the interface. One day he took some of the usability group out to observe people using the text editor in situ in a manuscript center. They discovered that the typists spent 7 hours every day typing and 1 hour every day counting up, by hand, the number of lines that they had typed that day (which determined their pay). Of course, it was now immediately obvious how to improve productivity by 14%. The work of this group seems to have been inspirational for Beyer & Holtzblatt’s  Contextual Design as well as the Carroll & Kellogg (1989) paper on “Artifact as Theory Nexus.”

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Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas in May, 2018

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Related Patterns: 

Reality Check, Who Speaks for Wolf?

Abstract: 

When designing a new system, it is easy to imagine a context in which all the existing systems that might interact with the new system will operate “normally” or “properly.” In order to avoid catastrophe, it is important to understand what reasonably likely failure modes might be and to design for those as well.

Context: 

For people to design systems, it is necessary to make some assumptions that separate the context of the design from what is being designed. There is a delicate balance. If you define the problem too broadly, you run the risk of addressing a problem that is too intractable, intellectually, logistically or financially. On the other hand, if you define the problem too narrowly, you run the risk of solving a problem that is too special, temporary, or fragile to do anyone much good.

In the honest pursuit of trying to separate out the problem from the context, it happens that one particular form of simplification is particularly popular. People assume that all the systems that will touch the one they are designing will not fail. That often includes human beings who will interact with the system. Such a design process may also presume that electrical power will never be interrupted or that internet access will be continuous.

Systems so designed may have a secondary and more insidious effect. By virtue of having been designed with no consideration to breakdowns, the system will tend to subtly influence the people and organizations that it touches not to prepare for such breakdowns either.

Problem:

When the systems that touch a given system do fail, which can always happen, if no consideration has been given to failure modes, the impact can be disastrous. Most typically, when the system has not been designed to deal with breakdowns, the personnel selection, training, and documentation also fail to deal with breakdowns. As a result, not only are the mechanisms of the systems unsuited to breakdowns; the human organization surrounding the breakdown is also unprepared. Not only is there a possibility of immediate catastrophe; the organization is unprepared to learn. As a result, mutual trust within and of the organizations around the system are also severely damaged.

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Forces:

  • Design is a difficult and complex activity and the more contingencies and factors that are taken into account, the more difficult and complex the design activity becomes.
  • Not every single possibility can be designed for.
  • People working on a design have a natural tendency to “look on the bright side” and think about the upside benefits of the system.
  • People who try to “sell” a new system stress its benefits and tend to avoid talking about its possible failures.
  • It is uncomfortable to think about possible breakdowns.
  • When anticipated breakdowns occur, the people in relevant organizations tend to think about how to fix the situation and reduce the probability or impact of breakdowns for the future.
  • When unanticipated breakdowns occur, the people in relevant organizations tend to try to find the individual or individuals responsible and blame them. This action leaves the probability and impact of future breakdowns unimproved.
  • When people within an organization are blamed for unanticipated system failure, it decreases trust of the entire organization as well as mutual trust within the organization.

* Even when consideration of support for breakdown modes is planned for, it is often planned for late in an ambitious schedule. The slightest slippage will often result in breakdowns being ignored.

Solution:

When designing a system, make sure the design process deals adequately with breakdown conditions as well as the “normal” flows of events. The organizations and systems that depend on a system also need to be designed to deal with breakdowns. For example, people should be trained to recognize and deal with breakdowns. Organizations should have a process in place (such as the After Action Review) to learn from breakdowns. Having a highly diverse design team may well improve the chances of designing for likely breakdowns. 

Resulting Context:

Generally speaking, a system designed with attention to supporting both the “normal” flow of events and likely breakdown modes will result in a more robust and resilient system. Because the system design takes these possibilities into account, it also makes it likely that documentation and training will also help people prepare for breakdowns. Furthermore, if breakdowns are anticipated, it also makes it easier for the organization to learn about how to help prevent breakdowns and to learn, over time, to improve responses to breakdowns. There is a further benefit; viz., that mutual trust and cooperation will be less damaged in a breakdown. The premise that breakdowns will happen, puts everyone more in the frame of mind to learn and improve rather than simply blame and point fingers.

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Examples: 

1. Social Networking sites were originally designed to support friends sharing news, information, pictures, and so on. “Flow” is when this is what is actually going on. Unfortunately, as we now know, social media sites can also not work as intended, not because there are “errors” in the code or UX of the social media systems but because the social and political systems that form the context for these systems have broken down. The intentional misappropriation of an application or system is just one of many types of breakdowns that can occur.

2. When I ran the AI lab at NYNEX in the 1990’s, one of the manufacturers of telephone equipment developed a system for telephone operators that was based on much more modern displays and keyboards. In order to optimize performance of the system, the manufacturer brought in representative users; in this case, telephone operators. They redesigned the workflow to reduce the number of keystrokes required to perform various common tasks. At that time, operators were measured in terms of their “Average Work Time” to handle calls.

In this particular case, the manufacturer had separated the domain into what they were designing for (namely, the human-machine interface between the telephone operator and their terminal) from the context (which included what the customer did). While this seemed seemed like a reasonable approach, it turned out when the HCI group at NYNEX studied the problem with the help of Bonnie John, the customer’s behavior was actually a primary determiner of the overall efficiency of the call. While it was true that the new process required fewer keystrokes on the part of the telephone operator, these “saved” keystrokes occurred when the customer, not the telephone operator, was on the critical path. In other words, the operator had to wait for the customer any way, so one or two fewer keystrokes did not impact the overall average work time. However, the suggested workflow involved an extra keystroke that occurred when the operator’s behavior was on the critical path. As it turned out, the “system” that needed to be redesigned was not actually the machine-user system but the machine-user-customer system. In fact, the biggest improvement in average work time came from changing the operator’s greeting from “New York Telephone. How can I help you?” to “What City Please?” The latter greeting tended to produce much more focused conversation on the part of the customer.

Just to be clear, this is an example of the broader point that some of the most crucial design decisions are not about your solution to the problem you are trying to solve but your decision about what the problem is versus what part of the situation you decide is off-limits; something to ignore rather than plan for. A very common oversight is to ignore breakdowns, but it’s not the only one.

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3. In a retrospective analysis of the Three-Mile Island Nuclear Meltdown, many issues in bad human factors came to light. Many of them had to do with an insufficient preparation for dealing with breakdowns. I recall three instances. First, the proper functioning of many components was shown by a red indicator light being on. When one of the components failed, it was indicated by one of a whole bank of indicator lights not being on. This is not the most salient of signals! To me, it clearly indicates a design mentality steering away from thinking seriously about failure modes. This is not surprising because of the fear and controversy surrounding nuclear power. Those who operate and run such plants do not want the public, at least, to think about failure modes.

Second, there was some conceptual training for the operators about how the overall system worked. But that training was not sufficient for real time problem solving about what to do. In addition, there were manuals describing what to do. But the manuals were also not sufficiently detailed to describe precisely what to do.

Third, at one critical juncture, one of the plant operators closed a valve and “knew” that he had closed it because of the indicator light next to the valve closure switch. He then based further actions on the knowledge that the valve had been closed. Guess what? The indicator light showing “value closure” was not based on feedback from a sensor at the site of the valve. No. The indicator light next to the switch was lit by a collateral current from the switch itself.  All it really showed was that the operator had changed the switch position! Under “normal” circumstances, there is a perfect correlation between the position of the switch and the position of the valve. However, under failure mode, this was no longer true.

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4. The US Constitution is a flexible document that takes into account a variety of failure modes. It specifies what to do, e.g., if the President dies in office and has been amended to specify what to do if the President is incapacitated. (This contingency was not really specified in the original document). The Constitution presumes a balance of power and specifies that a President may be impeached by Congress for treasonous activity. It seems the US Constitution, at least as amended, has anticipated various breakdowns and what to do about them.

There is one kind of breakdown, however, that the U.S. Constitution does not seem to have anticipated. What if society becomes so divided, and the majority of members in Congress so beholden to special interests, that they refuse to impeach a clearly treasonous President or a President clearly incapacitated or even under the obvious influence of one or more foreign powers? Unethical behavior on the part of individuals in power is a breakdown mode clearly anticipated in the Constitution. But it was not anticipated that a large number of individuals would simultaneously be unethical enough to put party over the general welfare of the nation.  Whether this is a recoverable oversight remains to be seen. If democracy survives the current crisis, the Constitution might be further amended to deal with this new breakdown mode.

5. In IT systems, the error messages that are shown to end users are most often messages that were originally designed to help developers debug the system. Despite the development of guidelines about error messages that were developed over a half century ago, these guidelines are typically not followed. From the user’s perspective, it appears as though the developers know that something “nasty” has just happened and they want to run away from it as quickly as possible before anyone can get blamed. They remind me of a puppy who just chewed up their master’s slippers and knows damned well they are in trouble. Instead of “owning up” to their misbehavior, they hide under the couch.

Despite the many decades of pointing out how useless it is to get an error message such as “Tweet not sent” or “Invalid Syntax” or “IOPS44” such messages still abound in today’s applications. Fifty years ago, when most computers had extremely limited storage, there may have been an excuse to print out succinct error messages that could be looked up in a paper manual. But today? Error messages should minimally make it clear that there is an error and how to recover from it. In most cases, something should be said as well as to why the error state occurred. For instance, instead of “Tweet not sent” a message might indicate, “Tweet not sent because an included image is no longer linkable; retry with new image or link” or “Tweet not sent because it contains a potentially dangerous link; change to allow preview” or “Tweet not sent because the system timed out; try again. If the problem persists, see FAQs on tweet time-out failures.” I haven’t tested these so I am not claiming they are the “right” messages, but they have some information.

Today’s approach to error messages also has an unintended side-effect. Most computer system providers now presume that most errors will be debugged and explained on the web by someone else. This saves money for the vendor, of course. It also gives a huge advantage to very large companies. You are likely to find what an error message means and how to fix the underlying issue on the web, but only if it is a system that already has a huge number of users. Leaving error message clarification to the general public advantages the very companies who have the resources to provide good error messages themselves and keeps entrenched vendors entrenched.

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References: 

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.

Beyer, Hugh and Holtzblatt, Karen (1998): Contextual design: defining customer-centered systems. San Francisco: Elsevier.

Carroll, J., Thomas, J.C. and Malhotra, A. (1980). Presentation and representation in design problem solving. British Journal of Psychology/,71 (1), pp. 143-155.

Carroll, J., Thomas, J.C. and Malhotra, A. (1979). A clinical-experimental analysis of design problem solving. Design Studies, 1 (2), pp. 84-92.

Carroll, J. and Kellogg, W. (1989), Artifact as Theory-Nexus: Hermeneutics Meets System Design. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. New York: ACM, 1989.

Casey, S.M. (1998), Set Phasers on Stun: And Other True Tales of Design, Technology, and Human Error. Santa Barbara, CA: Aegean Publishing.

Gray, W. D., John, B. E., & Atwood, M. E. (1993). Project Ernestine: Validating GOMS for predicting and explaining real-world task performance. Human Computer Interaction, 8(3), 237-309.

Harris, J. & Henderson, A. (1999), A Better Mythology for System Design. Proceedings of ACM’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. New York: ACM.

Malhotra, A., Thomas, J.C. and Miller, L. (1980). Cognitive processes in design. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 12, pp. 119-140.

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

Thomas, J.C. (1978). A design-interpretation analysis of natural English. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 10, pp. 651-668.

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

Thomas, J.C. and Kellogg, W.A. (1989). Minimizing ecological gaps in interface design, IEEE Software, January 1989.

Thomas, J. (2015). Chaos, Culture, Conflict and Creativity: Toward a Maturity Model for HCI4D. Invited keynote @ASEAN Symposium, Seoul, South Korea, April 19, 2015.


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Find and Cultivate Allies

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Find and Cultivate Allies

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Prolog/Acknowledgement: 

The idea for this Pattern comes from personal experience although I am sure there must be many other writers who make a similar point.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas in May, 2018.

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Abstract: 

Human beings are highly social beings by nature. We work more effectively in groups (for many tasks) and it’s also more pleasurable. In a group of any size and complexity, people will have a large variety of goals and values. To achieve a goal, including but not limited to change within the group itself, it is useful to make common cause with others within the larger group. Whenever it becomes useful to promote social change of any kind, it is important to seek out and then cultivate allies. You will achieve greater success, enjoy the process, and learn much.

Context: 

Complex problems and large problems can often only be solved by groups. Within a large group, there will be many sub-groups and individuals whose motivations, expertise, and values are partially different from those in other sub-groups or from those of other individuals. In order to achieve any kind of goal including but not limited to changes within the group itself, a great deal of knowledge must be brought to bear and a large number of actions will be required. Generally, an individual or a small group will not have the knowledge, power, or resources to take all of these actions.

The variety of goals, values, experiences, and scope of power of various individuals and subgroups within a larger group can be viewed as a resource. The interactions among such individuals be a source of creativity. In addition, in order to accomplish some goal, you may seek and find among these individuals and groups those whose goals are compatible with yours and whose power and resources allows them to do things you cannot do yourself.

Individuals are subject to a variety of perceptual and cognitive illusions and these may be exaggerated by being in a large group. Changing a group, team, organization, corporation, NGO may be even more difficult than changing an individual even if the change would benefit the group, team, organization, corporation or NGO. Within any organization, there come to be entrenched interests that are orthogonal to, or even antithetical to, the espoused purposes of the group.

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Problem:

Over time, organizations eventually begin to behave in ways that are ineffective, inefficient, or even antithetical to their purpose. Whatever the cause, an individual who recognizes these infelicities in the organization will typically not, by acting alone, have the power to change them. Force of habit, custom, the culture, and the entrenched power of others will tend to make change by an individual extremely difficult or impossible despite their pointing out that the current way of doing things is counter-productive.

Forces:

  • People who wield local power in an organization are often afraid that any change will weaken their power.
  • Changing one part of the organization generally means that other parts much also change, at least slightly.
  • What works best for an organization must necessarily change over time because of changes in personnel, society, technology, competition, the environment, and so on.
  • Organizations typically codify the way they currently work by documenting procedures, providing training, incorporating current processes into software systems, floor layouts, and so on.
  • Each person in an organization is typically rewarded according to the performance of a small area of the organization that centers on or near them.

* People within an organization of any size will exhibit large variations in knowledge, skill, values, goals, and the resources available to them.

* In many organizations, a valid reason for continuing to do X is simply to say, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

* It is not considered a valid reason for change from doing X to doing Y to simply say, “We’ve never done it this way before.”

* Organizations are therefore prone to continuing along a path long after it is a fruitful, ethical, or lawful path.

Solution:

If a person wishes to change how a large organization does things, they need to find and cultivate potential allies within the organization. Allies may be people who can be convinced that the change is best for something that is best for that individual, their department, the organization as a whole, for society or for life on earth. These allies will have crucial information, power, friends, or resources to help make the change possible.

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Example: 

For two years, in the early 1980’s, I worked in the IBM Office of the Chief Scientist. My main mission was to get IBM as a whole to pay more attention to the usability of its products. No-one worked for me. I had no budget. I did, however, have the backing of the Chief Scientist, Lewis Branscomb. Among his powers, at the time, was the ability to “Non-Concur” with the proposed plans of other parts of IBM. This meant that if other IBM divisions did not have usability labs or adequate staff, the Chief Scientist could block the approval of those plans. Lewis himself was a great ally because he had a lot of personal credibility due to his brilliance. Having the power to block the plans of other divisions was also critical.

IBM at this time already had some Human Factors Labs who had done excellent work for years. However, there were large areas such as software that were mainly untested. In addition, most of IBM’s users were technical people and many of the usability tests had been done on other technical people. This had been appropriate but with the extension of computing into other areas of life, many of IBM’s “end users” were now people with little technical computer background. This included administrative assistants and clerks; even chemists, physicists, MD’s, lawyers and other people with advanced education found IBM products hard to use. None of these fairly new groups of users had typically used computers much or had been taught their use in their schooling.

I needed to find allies because the changes that were necessary to IBM were widespread. One important ally was already provided: Tom Wheeler had a similar position to mine within another corporate staff organization called “Engineering, Products, and Technology.” Tom could also get his boss to non-concur with the plans of divisions who were unwilling to “get on board” with the changes. But I needed more allies.

One obvious source of allies were the existing Human Factors Groups. Where they existed, they were typically staffed and managed by excellent people; however, they were often understaffed and often brought in near the end of the development cycle. In many cases, only their advice on “surface features” or documentation could be incorporated into the product. This was frustrating to them. They knew they could be more effective if they were brought in earlier. Often, this did happen, but typically because they had developed personal reputations and friendships (allies) within their organization. It was not mandated by the development process.

Who else would benefit from more usable IBM products? There’s a long list! A lot of “power” within IBM came from Sales and Marketing. The founder, Thomas J. Watson was himself primarily a sales and marketer. Most of the CEO’s had been from this function of the organization. Many in Sales and Marketing were beginning to see for themselves that IBM products were frustrating customers. Finding people within such organizations who were willing to stand up and “be counted” was critical. It was especially useful to find some allies in Europe who were on board with suggested changes. In many countries in Europe, there were various social and legal constraints that gave even more weight to having products that did not cause mental stress, repetitive motion injuries, eyestrain, hearing loss and so on.

In many parts of IBM, there were also “Product Assurance” organizations that required products to be tested before final release. In this case, two simple but crucial and fundamental changes needed to be made. Again, people who worked in Product Assurance wanted these changes to be made. First, we needed to convince development to work with Product Assurance earlier rather than later so that any problems would not be the cause of product announcement slippages (or ignored). Second, we needed to convince Product Assurance to test the procedures and documentation with people outside the development teams. Current practice was often for the Product Assurance people to watch people on the development team “follow” the documented process to ensure that it actually worked. The problem with this process is that language is ambiguous. The people on the development team already knew how to make the product work, so they would interpret every ambiguity in instructions in the “proper” way. IBM customers and users, however, would have no way of knowing how to resolve these ambiguities. Instead of making sure that the documentation was consistent with a successful set-up, the process was changed to see whether documentation actually resulted in a successful set-up when attempted by someone technically appropriate but outside the development team.

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People within IBM product divisions did care about budgets. Adding human factors professionals to existing labs or, in some cases, actually setting up new labs, would obviously cost money. We needed to show that they would save money, net. Some of the human factors labs had collected convincing data indicating that many service calls done at IBM’s expense were not due to anything actually being wrong with the product but instead were because the usability of the product was so bad that customers assumed it must not be working correctly. In most cases, fixing the usability of products would save far more money than the additional cost of improving the products.

In some cases, developing allies was a fairly simple business. For example, IBM had a process for awarding faculty grants for academic research relevant to its technologies and products. These were awarded in various categories. Adding a category to deal with human-computer interaction required a single conversation with the person in charge of that program. Similarly, IBM awarded fellowships to promising graduate students in various categories of research. Again, adding the category of human-computer interaction resulted from a single conversation. It should be noted that the ease of doing that resulted much more from the fact that it was known throughout the company that usability was now deemed important and the fact that I worked for the well-respected Chief Scientist than from any particular cleverness on my part.

In at least one case, an ally “fell in my lap.” Part of how I operated was to visit IBM locations around the world and give a talk about the importance of usability for IBM’s success. Generally, these talks were well-received although that did not guarantee any success in getting people to change their behavior. When I gave the talk to the part of IBM that made displays, however, I got a completely hostile reaction. It was clear that the head of the division had somehow made up his mind before I started that it was complete nonsense. I had no success whatever. Only a few months later, the head of this division got an IBM display of his own. He couldn’t get it to work! He did a complete 180 and became an important supporter, through no fault of my own. (Of course, there may have been additional arm-twisting beyond my ken).

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There were also two important, instructive, and inter-related failures in lining up my allies. First, it was very difficult to line up development managers. An IBM developer’s career depended on getting their product “out the door.” Not every product development effort that began resulted in a product being shipped. Once the product was shipped, the development manager was promoted and often went to another division. So, from the development manager’s perspective, the important thing was to get their product shipped. If it “bombed” after shipment, it wasn’t their problem. In order for the product to be shipped, it had to be forecast to make significant net revenue for IBM. No big surprise there! However, these predictions did not take into account actual sales, or the actual cost of sales, or the actual service costs, or even the actual production costs. The only thing that was really known were the development costs. So, for every additional dollar the development manager spent during development, there was one dollar added to the development costs, but also an additional dollar added to predicted service costs and predicted manufacturing costs. Moreover, there were an additional five dollars added to the predicted sales and marketing costs. If they spent an extra dollar doing usability tests, for example, it added not just one but eight dollars to estimated overall costs. Moreover, since IBM was in business to make a profit, an increase of 8 dollars in costs, meant an increase of nearly 20 dollars in projected price. This meant fewer predicted products sold.

In actuality, spending an additional dollar to improve usability of products should reduce service costs and sales and marketing costs. But that is not the formula that was used. The logic of the formula, corroborated by correlational data, was that bigger, more complex products had higher development costs and also had higher service, manufacturing and sales costs. When one compared a mainframe and a PC, this formula made sense. But when used as a decision tool by the development manager, it did not make sense. (By analogy, there is a strong correlation between the size of various species of mammals and their longevity. This, however, does not mean that you will live twice as long if you double your own body weight!).

Recall however, that the development manager’s career did not much depend on how successful the product was after release; it mainly depended on showing that they could get their product shipped. Development managers proved to be difficult to get “on board.” In some cases, despite the organizational pressures, some development managers did care about how the product did; were interested in making their products usable; did spent additional money to improve their product. Making such allies, however, relied on appealing to their personal pride of ownership or convincing them it was best for the company.

Some development managers suggested that perhaps I could get the Forecasters to change their formula so that they would be given credit for higher sales to balance the projected increase in price (and attendant reduction in sales volume forecasts). It would have been an excellent leverage point to have gotten the Forecasting function as an ally. I was not, however, sufficiently wise to accomplish this.

The organizational payoff matrix for the forecaster was quite skewed toward being conservative. If they used the existing formula and ended up thereby “killing” a product by reducing the sales forecast because of the money spent improving usability, no-one would ever find out that the forecaster might have erred. On the other hand, if I had convinced them by giving them evidence (which would necessarily be quite indirect) that the product, by virtue of its being more usable, would therefore sell many more units, there were at least two logical possibilities. First, I might be right and the product would be a success. The forecaster would have done the right thing and would keep their job (but not be likely to receive any special recognition, promotion, or raise). Second, I might be wrong (for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with usability such as unexpected competition or unexpected costs) and the product might tank. In that case, the company lose a lot of money and the forecaster might well lose their job. While I occasionally found development managers I could convince to be allies because I could get them to value making the most excellent product over their own career, I never was able to gain any allies in the Forecasting function. In retrospect, I think I didn’t take sufficient time to discover the common ground that it would have taken to get them on board.

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Resulting Context:

Finding allies will often enable the organization to change in ways that will benefit the organization as a whole and most of the individuals and sub-groups within it. If done with the best interests of the organization in mind, it should also increase internal mutual trust.

There is a related Anti-Pattern which is finding allies, not to change the organization in a positive way, but to subvert the organization. If, instead of trying to make IBM be more effective by making its products more usable, I had tried to ruin it by finding allies who, in the process of ruining IBM would also profit personally, that would have been highly unethical. Such a process, even if it ultimately failed, would decrease internal mutual trust and decrease the effectiveness of the organization. Of course, one could imagine that some competitor of IBM (or of a government or team) might try to destroy it from the inside out by favoring the promotion of those who would put their own interests ahead of the company or its customers. Finding allies may be likely ethical when it is for the best interests of the overall organization and all its stakeholders and if is a known initiative (as was the case for improving the usability of IBM products).

References: 

https://gps.ucsd.edu/faculty-directory/lewis-branscomb.html

Branscomb, L. and Thomas, J. (1984). Ease of use: A system design challenge. IBM Systems Journal, 23 (3), pp. 224-235.

Thomas, J. (1984) Organizing for human factors. In Y. Vassilou (Ed.) Human factors and interactive computing systems. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Thomas, J.C. (1985). Human factors in IBM. Proceedings of the Human Factors Society 29th Annual Meeting.  Santa Monica, CA: Human Factors Society. 611-615. 

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Author Page on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/truthtable

Speak Truth to Power

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Speak Truth to Power

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Prolog/Acknowledgement: 

This is a well-known phrase and also served as the subtitle to an on-line course I took recently on political consulting. I thought it would be useful as a follow-up to the last blog post which comprised the Anti-Pattern: Power Trumps Good. It is all well and good to say that one should speak truth to power. But how exactly does one go about that? Most people realize that exercise is good for them and eating lots of refined sugar is not; but knowing that is not enough to make those lifestyle changes happen. It is easy to forgo exercise; it is easy to get hooked on sugar; it is easy to “go along” with whoever is in power and accept or acquiesce in whatever they say. Hopefully, the pattern Speak Truth to Power can help motivate people but also provide some guidance in how to go about it. The result will be organizations that are more effective and efficient as well as being more life-promoting to interact with or belong to. That said, if you are like most people, it will be uncomfortable initially to speak truth to power just as it will be uncomfortable to start an exercise program or stop your sugar addiction. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

A committed individual can accomplish a lot. In many cases, however, an organization can accomplish a lot more. Most organizations have some kind of power structure. In order to collaborate and cooperate most effectively, it is important to understand, not only how to be an outstanding individual contributor to the goals of that organization; it is also important to know how to help the organization as a whole meet its goals. The next few Patterns should help with being effective in your work for and with organizations: Speak Truth to Power; Find Allies; Seek Forgiveness, not Permission; Servant Leadership; Prioritize; Seek to Work Down, not Up the Chain of Command.  

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas in May, 2018

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Synonyms: 

Be Yourself. Be Honest.

Abstract: 

Human beings often need to form large groups in order to accomplish great things. In order to coordinate the actions of a large group, the most commonly used mechanism is to form a hierarchy of power and control. In the best of circumstances, information flows up such a chain of command only so far as it needs to; decisions are made; these decisions are carried out through the chain of command. Such “command and control” structures can be efficient, but they are subject to the difficulty that people in positions of power may use their power, not to achieve the goals of the organization but instead use the organization only for their own ends. People in power may concoct a rationalization or story or outright lie that makes it seem as though they are doing things for the common good when they are only doing things to consolidate their own power or to make themselves comfortable. People in power may discourage subordinates from giving them honest feedback about the effects of their decisions. As an antidote, it is important for everyone in the organization to speak truth to power. That is, you must find a way to insure that important information, including “bad news,” is made available to the organization.

Context: 

Complex problems and large problems can often only be solved by groups. In many cases, these groups have considerable structure including, importantly, a hierarchical control structure which gives some people the power to make decisions. Often, these decisions are not just about the appropriate course of action for the group as a whole; they also include decisions about the other people in the group; e.g., who to promote, give a raise to, fire, okay a transfer, write a recommendation and so on. Hopefully, the person “in charge” of a group or team within a larger organization knows or makes sure to learn a good deal about the domain as well as the people he or she works with. Ideally, people use their power to gather information, facilitate fruitful discussion, and make decisions that people within the group understand even if they don’t always agree. However, as point out in the Anti-Pattern: Power Trumps Good, it is also possible that the person “in charge” uses power primarily for their own benefit; in extreme cases, they will use it for sexual exploitation, to blame others for their bad decisions, to take credit for things they didn’t do and so on. Such bosses often only want to hear about the good that comes from their decisions. They only want to hear data and arguments that support their positions.

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Problem:

Groups function better if decisions are based on facts. Yet, sometimes the person in charge does not want to hear facts that argue for a different course of action from the one they want or if the facts show that a previous decision turned out to be a bad one. People who work for such a boss may well know these “uncomfortable facts” but the boss has the power to promote them, fire them, give them a raise, and so on. This puts pressure on those who work for such a boss to tell the boss what he or she wants to hear so as to stay in their good graces. If a bad decision is made it is generally bad for the overall organization, the team, and at least some of the individuals on the team.

Forces:

  • Having power tempts many people to abuse that power.
  • A person in power can bestow positive and negative sanctions based on obedience and compliance rather than competence.
  • People in an organization know they are supposed to be working for the best interests of the organization as a whole.
  • If a person in power signals (implicitly or explicitly) that they will use that power to put everyone under them in compliance with their wishes rather than what is best for the organization, it is tempting to be compliant.
  • When faced with an ethical dilemma, if people do what is expedient rather than what is right, they can generally find a way to “rationalize” their unethical decision.
  • An organization that runs on personal power as the driver for decision making will make inept decisions that are often at cross-purposes.
  • An organization that runs on personal power will tend to attract and keep the kind of person who will fail ethical tests.
  • If some people in an organization are willing to forgo the facts in order to please the boss, it will tend to encourage others to do the same.
  • If some people in an organization are willing to speak truth to power, it will encourage others to do the same.

 

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Solution:

Speak truth to power. There are many ways to do this. Depending on circumstances and the character (or lack of character) of the person in power, it may help to be bombastic, quiet, rational, emotional, respectful, or find a way to demonstrate that taking facts into account is in their interests as well. In many traditional and highly hierarchical Japanese companies, the workers always defer during working hours and publicly. After hours, a junior person may “unfortunately” get drunk and “accidentally” let the truth out to his superiors. Later, after sobering up, they apologize. In the Middle Ages, the Court Jester might tell the King truth. However you do it, speak truth to power. And, if you are in power, encourage everyone to speak the truth to you.

Examples: 

  1. To understand this example, it takes a while to set the stage. You need that background in order to understand how necessary it was to speak truth to power. For a time, I was the Executive Director for an AI lab. The company that I worked for was having a problem with their credibility. Fewer than 15% of the union people trusted top management. The figure for people in management like me, was even lower. The CEO called in a top consultant who told them about what Sam Walton did (who, at that time, enjoyed high trust among his employees). Every week, he had an hour long conference call. Each of his 700 store managers were on the call. Each manager had a chance to describe in one minute, a problem that he or she had encountered and how they had solved it. Part of the reason this process worked for Sam Walton was that he already had a lot of credibility. He would spend fully half his time traveling the country in jeans and a pick-up truck with two dogs in the back. He knew each of his store managers personally. Beyond that, while clearly some problems are local, any given store manager might very well have a solution to a problem that the other 699 could use.

By contrast, in the company I worked for, at this time, there were 70,000 “managers” in the company. The range of jobs among these 70,000 was tremendous. Some, like me, were in R&D. Others were telecom engineers or personnel counselors or accountants or software engineers. Our CEO at that time was definitely not someone wear jeans nor to ride around in a pickup truck with dogs in the back. He definitely was someone who “stood on ceremony” and expected others to do the same.

Management realized that 70,000 was far too many for everyone to speak about problems and solutions, but they still thought it important to make this weekly experience interactive. So, they decided that each week, the CEO would talk at the 70,000 managers for an hour about something important such as that they had a clear understanding of their precise role and duties. After the talk, each of the 70,000 managers would be asked to react with the touch-tone keypad. In this example, they were supposed to indicate on a 10-point scale how much they had a clear understanding of their precise role and duties. The basic structure of this had been decided. They came to me, because I was an “expert” in human-computer interaction. They wanted to know whether the “0” key should be used to indicate a “ten” or whether it was better to use “9” as the top of the scale and “0” as the bottom of the scale.

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Wow.

I made it very clear that this plan was a disaster waiting to happen and would do nothing to improve trust between people in the company and top management. After explaining this as clearly, yet politely as I could, the person from Corporate who presented the plan said, in essence:

“Well, when my boss asks me what the best way to do something is, it isn’t my job to tell him that it’s a bad idea. It’s my job to figure out the best way to do it.”

I said, in essence:

“Well, if my boss asks me what sort of chain saw he should use to trim his  hair, I think it is definitely my job to tell him that trimming his hair with a chain saw is a really bad idea.”

The guy from Corporate was not pleased. Eventually, however, before implementing this plan, they did run some focus groups and I am happy to report that this plan was never implemented.

Of course, it’s uncomfortable to be a nay-sayer, particularly when the CEO of the company has already been involved in choosing (what I saw as) a disastrous course of action. But the alternative would have been to dishonest. The alternative would ultimately done a disservice to myself, my work colleagues, the stockholders of the company and, indeed, to the CEO himself.

In my opinion, you should always be mentally prepared to lose your job even before you accept the job offer. You should be prepared to be fired for insubordination, laid off for no reason, or suffer at the hands of someone in power who is not really doing what is best for the organization. Then, when you are surprised by someone making an absurd request, you already know where you stand.

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2. In the 1990’s, I became intrigued with the idea of a “Learning Organization.” The idea is simple in essence but non-trivial to implement. Just as individual animals (including humans) learn, so too can an organization be set up so that lessons learned by a few can be shared by the many. (Some of the Story Patterns just posted are meant to encourage just that). Working with consultants, my colleague Bart Burns and I made the outline of a plan to help turn our company into one that was a “Learning Organization.” In order to modify this plan appropriately and ensure its acceptance, it would be necessary to get the CEO’s backing. (FYI, this was a different CEO than in example 1). I decided that I wanted to present this to our CEO directly. This is, of course, not how things are typically done. Good manners would be to convince my boss. If I convinced him it was a good idea, I would still have to convince him to try to convince his boss. And, not only would I have to convince my boss to convince his boss; I would have to convince him to convince his boss to convince his boss. And so on. I knew the company. I knew it would never happen. The further up the management chain you went, the more conservative the people were about “shaking the boat.”

Instead, I set up an appointment with the CEO directly, went to the meeting, made the pitch. I immediately told my boss what I had done and why. It was a gamble, but my boss was a smart man. He realized I was right that it would never go up the hierarchy to the CEO. Furthermore, even if I had convinced my boss, he might still appear foolish to his boss, or his boss’s boss. Basically, by not telling my boss, I had actually saved him some potential embarrassment and hassle. This is not a method I would try many times in a career and you’d better be ready for consequences. In this case, I felt that the transformation that it might have made to the organization was worth the risk. The “truth” here was not something that could be proven with the kind of certainty we have about, say, global climate change. I could not “prove” that being a Learning Organizations was a good idea. So, it was speaking my truth to power, not an objectively provable truth.

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3. In The Shawshank Redemption, a crucial turning point in the movie occurs when the main character, Andy, overhears one of the prison guards talking about some tax problems. He asks the guard whether he trusts his wife. The guard is ready to kill him, but Andy persists. If the guard can really trust his wife, Andy can show him how to avoid the taxes by putting everything in the name of the guard’s wife. This allows Andy to begin working for all he guards and indeed making lots of money for the prison officials. He eventually uses the information to his great benefit. In this plot, Andy was taking a chance. It would have been easier just to keep his head down and say nothing.

Resulting Context:

Speaking truth to power tends to help an organization be effective. It tends to prevent people in power from trying to dictate truth to suit their private agenda. In addition, when people speak the truth, it makes for a more creative, more peaceful workplace. People can concentrate on finding out what’s what and doing what’s correct, not dwell on what the likes and dislikes of the next person in the hierarchy are or how to curry favor with them. “The truth shall make you free.”

Related Patterns: 

Reality Check.

References: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speaking_truth_to_power

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shawshank_Redemption

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profiles_in_Courage

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https://www.amazon.com/author/truthtable

 

Anti-Pattern: Power Trumps Good

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Anti-Pattern: Power Trumps Good

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Drawing courtesy of Pierce Morgan

Prolog/Acknowledgement: 

Sometimes, learning works quite well when it’s based on negative examples. We learn what not to do. Negative examples, however, may also prove problematic for at least two reasons.

First, when one has to make decisions quickly, as in sports, having an image or rule about what not to do can actually make it more likely that you do the exact thing you are trying to avoid! My least favorite thing to hear on the golf tee is someone familiar with the course pointing out the rather large obvious lake lying before us – a lake that the tee shot must carry. “Well, you can see that there’s a giant lake right in front of you. Be sure not to hit it in the lake. No. You don’t want to go into that lake. Believe me, I’ve hit the lake a hundred times. Don’t go in the lake.” Of course, as pointed out in The Winning Weekend Warrior, before even beginning your pre-shot routine, you need to turn this into a positive image. Pick a very specific spot on the green where you will be landing the ball.

Some readers may remember the ancient vector graphics video game, Asteroids, in which the user controls the image of a tiny rocket ship which must shoot the asteroids to break them up while at the same time avoiding being hit by one of the asteroids. I discovered that it was much more effective for me to find paths and steer my ship through the paths than it was to “look out for the asteroids.” That latter method got me staring at the asteroid as it smashed into my wavering, wobbling ship.

Second, and aside from the psychological effect of putting a negative in your head, the other problem with negative examples is that it may not be obvious what to do even if you are able to understand and avoid what not to do. You may hear, at various points, a thousand different things not to do while trying to hit a golf ball; e.g., don’t look up so soon; don’t let your foot slip; don’t swing so hard; don’t be so tense; etc. Put them all together — and there are still a thousand wrong ways to swing the golf club!

Despite these potential cautions, I decided to try blogging about an Anti-Pattern: something to be avoided while trying to foster teamwork and collaboration. My aim, in the course of the discussion, is to clarify what one should do instead as well as point out the many and varied problems that can arise from letting Power Trumps Good. Of course, hopefully, the Patterns already suggested comprise a large set of positive best practices to foster effective teamwork and collaboration. By the way, in addition to avoiding Power Trumps Good,  the Anti-Patterns mentioned in the link below, in my opinion, are to be avoided, not only for software development but any time you are trying to be productive in a collaborative way.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas May, 2018.

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Abstract: 

For various reasons, cultures throughout history have found it practical to award and assign specific powers to particular people. When this is done, it sometimes happens that people in power, instead of fulfilling their duty to do what is best for all within their purview, they simply do what is best for themselves or a small group. This is considered an Anti-Pattern in that it is bad for that individual, for the institution they have a duty to, and for the society as a whole. In order to prevent such corruption, specific preventative and curative counter-measures must be undertaken such as “Balance of Powers” or “Removal from Office.”

Context: 

Groups across many contemporary cultures and throughout history have found it useful to have some people in specific roles and these roles sometimes include the power to make decisions. This is not the only possible method. One can insist on consensus for every decision. However, consensus-based decision making can become quite inefficient, slow, and contentious. In much of Medieval Europe, a widespread mythology held that royalty was beyond question and reproach; that their powers came from God. The monarch sometimes bestowed lesser rights, powers, and responsibilities on others. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence set forth quite a different view:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

In this view (influenced by European intellectuals but also quite likely by the practices and philosophy of the Iroquois Nation – see Forgotten Founders) rights do not come from government. They are considered natural rights. The power of the government does not come from God. The power of the government comes from the people governed. This is a crucial change. Power is not, in the fundamental view of America, absolute and it certainly does not come from above; it comes from the people governed. People in governmental positions of power, whether elected or selected, are not above the law. Indeed, they swear to uphold the law. Their power is limited and temporary. Later in this Anti-Pattern, we will see why this is crucial.

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Power can trump good in other spheres besides government. In our capitalistic society, we have often chosen to put property rights above human rights. In order to accomplish many sorts of complex work that takes place over long periods of time, several fundamental elements must be brought together: a place to do the work; competent labor to do the work; tools to allow the work to be done more efficiently; money or capital to pay for the place, the workers’ labors, and the tools. Most typically, the capital is required before any actual goods or services are provided. It is possible to imagine many ways to organize such work and many ways have been effectively tried. But most commonly, in the United States, the people who provide the capital choose various leaders who have power to decide many things about the work practices, the work process, the workers, and the workplace. This is not logically necessary, but it is common. (For example, in a frontier town, people spontaneously organized themselves into a “bucket brigade” to transport water from a source and use it to try to douse a fire).

Whenever a person finds themselves in a position of power, whether it is because of a capitalistic endeavor, a government office, a volunteer, effort, or even by virtue of being a parent, babysitter, or older sibling, it is sometimes tempting to use that power to make decisions that are good for one’s self as opposed to what is good for the organizational role that one has been entrusted with. For example, a boss may push for an inefficient process that will require them to hire many more people thus giving them more power (even though it will lose money for the organization whose interests they are supposed to be looking out for). A US government official might make “deals” with foreign dignitaries, not because it is good for the country, but because it is good for them. A volunteer in charge of decorations for a party might pay twice the going rate for balloons to his brother-in-law in order to get a good deal later on wedding decorations. A babysitter might find it conducive to studying homework by putting the kids to bed earlier than the parents requested and before the kids wanted to go to bed.

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In the worst-case scenarios, people use their positions of power to hurt someone out of vengeance, or to sexually or physically abuse someone just because they can. A person in power always has some sort of duty, often even a solemnly sworn duty, to do what’s best for some other entity. Whether it be a mayor, a councilman, a US Senator, a CEO, a supervisor, a teacher, a movie producer — there is always some entity on whose behalf that person is supposed to be working. They are not meant to use their power on their own behalf and particularly not when their interests are counter to the interests of the body for whom they are supposedly using their power. Lord Acton famously said that “…power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Problem:

A person in power who abuses that power will inevitably (and by definition) do things that are ineffective, inefficient, and unethical with respect to the goals that it is his or her duty to work toward reaching. This weakens the organization and corrupts anyone who goes along with the charade of doing good while doing bad. People tend to lose faith in the corrupted organizations, not just in the corrupting individuals.

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Forces:

  • For purely practical reasons, it is often efficient to invest one person or a small group of people with special powers.
  • People who have the power to make a class of decisions may often be chosen because they have particular experiences or skills in making that class of decisions.
  • Most human beings take their responsibilities seriously most of the time.
  • It is tempting to use power to do what’s best for one’s self, one’s family, or one’s political faction as opposed to doing what’s best for the organization for which one has sworn to make decisions.
  • When people find out that someone has abused their power, they are necessarily upset and will try to prevent further abuses.
  • When someone knows that they have abused their power, they will try to use their power to cover up that abuse.
  • Among secondary abuses of power, lying about what is done and the reasons for what is done will be foremost.
  • When people in power “get away with” abusing their power, they will tend to do it again in a more and more outrageous fashion.
  • When people in an organization come to know that the person in charge makes decisions on the basis of what they perceive to be best for them, they either leave the organization or “go along” in which case, they will no longer try to do or argue for what is best for the organization as a whole, but only what will be approved by the authority figure.
  • When a power abuser ends up surrounded by sycophants who only them them what they want to hear, they may come to believe the lies they tell. In any case, a power abuser almost always ends up “disconnected” from reality. No-one whom the abuser puts stock in will speak “truth to power.”

Solution:

Institutions must fight against the tendency of people in power to misuse that power. There are a number of specific methods. For example, in the United States, people in the Federal Government who abuse their power can be impeached; that is, they can be removed from office. In many cases, there are limits to the length of time someone can hold an office or at least until they are again chosen.

Most companies move their executives around to different positions. Partly this is to reduce their ability to abuse power. Many companies have alternative channels of communication to help stem power corruption; e.g., IBM has an “Open Door” policy which basically means that an employee may go outside their normal hierarchy of control if they believe someone above them is doing something illegal, unethical, or clearly counter-productive. Many organizations, both governmental and non-governmental have policies to protect “whistle blowers.” The United States Constitution was written to ensure a “balance of power.” The three main branches of government: Executive, Congressional, and Judicial have separate powers and the ability to check each other’s power. In addition, in truly democratic countries, there is a “Free Press” which acts as a kind of limit on potential abuses of power by finding out and reporting on such abuses.

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Examples: 

  1. At one point in IBM’s history, the executives in charge of any one branch of the company had a lot of power over that particular branch. This made it tempting for the executive in charge to maximize profits for their part of the company rather than for the company as a whole. For example, the person in charge of very large computers might wish to extend their product line to medium and even to very small computers in order to enhance their overall revenue. This might increase revenue for that part of the company (as well as that executive’s power, prestige, and bonus) but lower overall revenue and particularly lower it for those parts of the company who were supposed to make medium-sized or small computers. IBM therefore had a “non-concurrence” process. All executives were required to share their plans with other executives. If the plan seemed problematic for some other part of IBM, that other part of IBM could “non-concur” with the proposed plan and the Central Management Committee would have final say on each of the plans. This is another example of “checks and balances” on absolute power.

2. Within the Federal Government, there is an Office of Government Ethics. The purpose is to have an agency not under the power of those in charge to be able to make independent determinations of the ethics of various situations. However, the Director of that office, Walter Shaub, resigned in July of 2017 because the White House refused to follow the same rules that other White Houses have followed for the past four decades. https://www.npr.org/2017/07/06/535781749/ethics-office-director-walter-shaub-resigns-saying-rules-need-to-be-tougher

3. Ultimately, when people feel that power has been misused for personal gain or to benefit a small group at the expense of a much larger group, some kind of chaotic change seems inevitable. For example, The Magna Carta was designed to balance power between King John and some rebellious Barons. It seemed to work for awhile, but soon Kings came to repudiate it and various wars and bloodshed resulted. It would seem that anyone in power (at least anyone with even a passing knowledge of history) would realize that misusing power is ultimately a bad idea, even for the power abuser. But apparently, the process of surrounding oneself only with those who are afraid to speak truth to power eventually makes the person or coterie “in charge” too divorced from reality to make good decisions.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magna_Carta

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Resulting Context:

If the abuse of power goes unchecked, the entire purpose and structure of an organization becomes corrupted much as untreated cancer can over-run an entire human body and end up killing it. Power abuse, as described above, has a negative effect on the one doing the abuse. It tends to make them disconnected from reality. As their decisions become worse and worse and more and more blatantly self-serving, people will tend to leave positions around the power-monger whether actually resigning from positions or mentally “giving up.” Those who stay will tend to be the least capable and most cowardly. This in turn, means that qualities such as being ethical, knowledgeable, effective, efficient, reflective, and generous will not be rewarded while qualities such as being sycophantic, duplicitous, and weak-willed will be rewarded. As a result, those with ethical standards or even simple competence to do a good job will tend to avoid working near the center of corruption.

In the Anti-Pattern Power Trumps Good, the word “Good” has many meanings. Those in power will tend to make decisions that are not for the common good, but only for personal gain or the gain of a small group. In this sense, “power trumps good.” But other “good” things even without much ethical content such as being effective and efficient tend to suffer as well. Orders are carried out without much question even if those orders are contradictory, plainly stupid, and when they are not actually producing anything “good” even for those in power. Not only is the system that arises from power abuse ineffective and inefficient in getting things done; it is also mean-spirited. It fosters cruelty, exploitation, dishonestly, and ignorance. People in such a system often feel trapped and feel bad about themselves. They are often subject to abuse from above and they then transmit this abuse to those below them in the hierarchy. Those people, in turn, promulgate more cruelty to others below them in the hierarchy as well as to their family members and pets. Such people seldom take it upon themselves to learn more or to improve their skills. They are typically too worried about keeping their position to “waste time” in any intellectual pursuits.

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Related Patterns: 

Reality Check.

References: 

Johansen, B. (1982), Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Commons Press.

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. (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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dalberg-Acton,_1st_Baron_Acton

Thomas, J. C. (2015). The Winning Weekend Warrior: How to Succeed at golf, tennis, baseball, football,  basketball, hockey, volleyball, business, life, etc. CreateSpace. http://tinyurl.com/ng2heq3

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-pattern

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Note to readers and followers: I am planning to end the current project of best practices in collaboration and teamwork around the end of June. If anyone would like to suggest a Pattern to be added, now would be a good time! Even if you don’t have a specific Pattern, any comments or suggestions are welcome. You might also enjoy some of my books which are all available on Amazon.

https://www.amazon.com/author/truthtable

Fostering Community Learning via Transformed Narratives

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Fostering Community Learning via Transformed Narratives

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Prolog/Acknowledgement: 

The idea for this Pattern emerged from work done around 2000 with colleagues at IBM Research (including Cynthia Kurtz, Carl Tait, Frank Elio, Debbie Lawrence, Neil Keller, Andrew Gordon), Lotus (including Dan Gruen, Paul Moody, Michael Muller), and at the IBM Knowledge Institute(including Dave Snowden, Larry Prusak, Sharon Darwent & Fiona Incledon) on the business uses of stories and storytelling. However, the essence of the idea is not that new. The British Navy uses a cartoon of a silly Admiral doing something to be avoided. Apparently, there was a process to collect anonymous stories of “mistakes” that people had made. Rather than being ascribed to the actual person, they were “ascribed” in the cartoon to the fictional Admiral. The point was to help insure that others would not make the same mistake. Mullah Nasreddin stories predate that practice by centuries. This fictional character often was reputed to have done silly things but in a way that made a point for others to learn from.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas April, 2018.

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Abstract: 

Stories are memorable and motivating. One popular type of story is the “Cautionary Tale” which describes what happens when a person makes a significant kind of error. Stories of this type can be valuable ways for a community as a whole to learn from the errors of one person thus preventing others in the community from making the same mistake. However, many communities also punish people for making errors. One solution is to alter the story of what actually happened slightly so that the community learns from the mistakes of individuals without the individual suffering from an unrecoverable loss of status.

Context: 

Groups across many contemporary cultures and throughout history have tended to tell, learn, and repeat stories as a way of codifying what is desirable and acceptable behavior, understanding the world, and communicating important lessons learned across generations. One such type of story is the “Cautionary Tale.” Many of Aesop’s Fables, for example, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and The Dog and its Reflection fall into this category. Such stories are potentially excellent ways to teach a lesson in a memorable way. For example, The Dog and its Reflection cautions that one may be so obsessed with greed that they will lose even what they already have in the attempt to grasp for more.

While Aesop’s Fables and other folk stories make very general points about values and “right action,” stories also serve an important way for a very local community to learn from the mistakes of individuals so that these same mistakes are not made over and over.

David's DreamDeeply

Problem. 

In communities, families, and organizations there are often negative sanctions applied to members who make mistakes. This sets up a dilemma. For the group as a whole to learn optimally, it is best to be able to learn from the experiences of every other member. On the other hand, the member who freely shares stories of his or her mistakes may find themselves punished and the “cautionary tale” repeated in the community then becomes a lesson about how not to admit mistakes, or not to be discovered, or how to shift blame to someone else. Rather than learning as a community and having such learning experiences increase social capital, such a practice instead reinforces self-serving denials and lies. The process is unpleasant and the group loses opportunities to learn from each other. While giving appropriately structured feedback can help, it is not a complete solution. Indeed, a culture that celebrates self-serving lies may quickly devolve into a “race to the bottom” with everyone mistrusting everyone else. The group as a whole is incapable of improving actual performance and so are its members.

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Forces:

  • Life is too complex, changing, and chaotic to describe completely in empirically falsifiable scientific statements.
  • Learning from the stories of others who have made mistakes can prevent everyone else from making the same mistake.
  • Humans are social creatures who tend to reward those who do well and punish those who do not do well.
  • Since people avoid punishment, if the punishment for admitting and relating mistakes is more severe than the reward for knowledge sharing, people will tend not to admit mistakes.
  • Once it becomes known in a culture that admitting mistakes leads to punishment, then it becomes even less likely for people to admit their mistakes.
  • The details of a story that are most important for the group to learn are often different from the details needed to mete out punishment.

 

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Solution:

When someone in the community makes a mistake that might teach a valuable lesson but could also result in loss of face, there are alternatives in the presentation of the story that allow for the community to learn the lesson but also protect the person involved from social ostracism. This may be done by “projecting” the story onto a fictional character such as Mullah Nasreddin. Another method is to slightly alter the story flow. For instance, instead of a story that says, “I did X and this terrible thing occurred” once could alter the story to: “I almost did X and if I had, this terrible thing would have occurred.” Or, one might say, “I did X and this really bad thing happened. Good thing we noticed right away because otherwise, this much worse thing, X! would have happened.” Another alternative: “Our team did X. This put us in a terrible position vis a vis our crucial customer Y. Luckily, we had a contingency plan in place and were able to immediately repair our relation with customer Y. Of course, next time, we will know not to do X in the first place.”

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Examples: 

  1. At once point, IBM was trying to save money and suggested that employees only use sardine class airline tickets. I overheard an IBM executive relate the following story. “I was high enough in the hierarchy that IBM made an exception for me. I could have gotten the first class ticket but I decided to take the sardine class ticket anyway. As I boarded that plane, I could see a dozen people in my own organization sitting in steerage. I was really glad to be able to sit down in my teeny seat along with everyone else.” This may have actually been true. On the other hand, it’s also possible that he only wished he had done this and altered what really happened to avoid opprobrium but still get the message across.

Resulting Context:

The altered story allows the team, family, culture or other group to learn from the mistake while protecting the person who made the mistake. As a result, people are more willing to admit to mistakes.

Needless to say, these kinds of alterations are not ethically done so as to avoid punishment for criminal behavior. Even apart from criminal behavior, there are certainly cases where the public has the right to know about actions that reveal a person’s character and this may outweigh concerns for ensuring that the community focuses on learning.

References: 

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.

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

Darwent, S., Incledon, F., Keller, N., Kurtz, C., Snowden, D., Thomas, J.(2002) YOR920000749US2 Story-based organizational assessment and effect system (granted).

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. (1999) Narrative technology and the new millennium. Knowledge Management Journal, 2(9), 14-17.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nasreddin

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Fostering Group Cohesion through Common Narratives

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Fostering Group Cohesion through Common Narratives

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Prolog/Acknowledgement: 

The idea for this Pattern emerged from work done around 2000 with colleagues at IBM Research (including Cynthia Kurtz, Carl Tait, Frank Elio, Debbie Lawrence, Neil Keller, Andrew Gordon), Lotus (including Dan Gruen, Paul Moody, Michael Muller), and at the IBM Knowledge Institute(including Dave Snowden, Larry Prusak, Sharon Darwent & Fiona Incledon) on the business uses of stories and storytelling. Of course, stories have long been used by leaders to motivate groups and to help foster group cohesion.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas April, 2018.

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Abstract: 

Stories that we tell ourselves help define who we are and frame our experience, both individually and collectively. In relatively stable cultures, a number of common stories are usually shared by everyone. What makes storytelling challenging in modern life is that group boundaries are continually shifting and changing. It often happens that groups which used to be separate must learn to work together; e.g., because of a peace treaty, corporate merger or acquisition, or even a marriage involving extended families. In these cases, it helps to find within the stories of these groups, common values among the previously disparate groups and then make compelling versions of stories that express these values and tell them back to the entire newly formed team, family, group, company, or nation.

Context: 

Groups across many contemporary cultures and throughout history have tended to tell, learn, and repeat stories as a way of codifying what is desirable and acceptable behavior, understanding the world, and communicating important lessons learned across generations. Such stories often include “creation myths” but also include stories about the “hero’s journey.”

In most cultures, these stories are transmitted orally regardless of whether such “cultures” are based on geography, company, religions, or even families. It’s true that some important stories have been put into written form. For example, many company founders have their own stories of founding the company put into written form. Religions often have sacred texts. However, both corporate cultures and religious sects and even congregations transmit the “proper interpretation” of these written documents orally. The written texts are modified very slowly while the oral interpretations can possibly change much more quickly. Nonetheless, the stories often persistently encode modes of behavior over centuries and even millennia.

When groups are stable over a long period of time and have minimal interaction, the fact that diverse groups have quite different stories seldom causes difficulties. As these diverse groups began to interact more frequently, it often happened that one group (typically the one with superior weapons) used violence to impose their stories on the other group. More recently, the world has become highly interconnected through inventions and developments in communications such as telegraphy, telephony, and the internet. Physical travel is also faster via rail, cars, and airplanes. People with different stories now come in contact of one sort or another very frequently indeed. Many of the most pressing problems that the world now faces including overpopulation, pandemics, and the destruction of the ecosystem require global cooperation.

Problem:

The very different stories of different groups are not simply just a matter of preference or taste. They are much more crucial and central than that. The stories portray how people should act; they specify good and bad values. When cultures collide, the fact that their very different stories encapsulate very different preferred modes of behavior often fosters suspicion, fear, hatred and disgust. People do not simply observe that others behave differently in terms of speech, dress, food, rituals, and so on. They perceive that the others are doing things, not just differently, but wrongly. The stories of the “in-group” can be used to rationalize exploitation, enslavement, or even genocide.

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Forces:

  • Life is too complex, changing, and chaotic to describe completely in empirically falsifiable scientific statements.
  • Learning from others who have relevant experience can shorten learning time.
  • Humans are social creatures who can feel empathy for others.
  • Cultures use stories as memorable and succinct ways to encapsulate lessons learned and inculcate the proper values in the young.
  • Because stories encapsulate much of a culture’s knowledge, members of the culture habitually do what is prescribed by stories and avoid what the stories proscribe. In this way, they can focus decision making among a much smaller set of possibilities and not be perpetually at a loss as to what to do.
  • Because stories are valuable guides for the individual, they are reluctant to change those stories. If learned early, contradictory evidence is then particularly ineffective at altering or discarding stories.
  • When people in the “in-group” perceive those in the “out-group” as behaving “badly” (not doing what the stories say they should), trust is ruined and cooperative action is nearly impossible.

Solution:

Whenever two or more groups with different stories must work cooperatively for mutual benefit, create and promulgate new stories that stress the commonalities among the groups rather than stressing differences. In more detail, one way to do this is to collect important, value-laden stories from each group; find the common values expressed; generate stories that stress these common values; and then re-introduce these common values in the form of compelling, memorable common stories.

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Examples: 

  1. Two people from very different cultures fall in love. Individually, they find that their love supersedes any feelings of disrespect for the way the other eats, dresses, speaks, etc. In fact, the difference may even be part of the attraction. However, the two families each experience discomfort when confronted with someone who is so different from what they are used to. In some cases, the couple may simply convince their families to accept their choice of mate. In other cases, as in Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story, love ends in tragedy. In other cases, they would work together by each learning more of the stories of their partner’s culture and find, among those stories, common values. They may find or create stories that stress these common values and relate those back to their families. A nice illustration of this is in the movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey in which two families from very different cultures come together over their skills and love of fine cooking.

2. In a corporate reorganization, both the Marketing and the R&D Departments are put under one executive whose job is to speed to market a stream of innovative new products. Among the factors that make this a difficult task is the fact that Marketing and R&D have different values, culture, and success stories. Of course, it will help if they are rewarded only for mutual success. But even this may not be enough. It will help to find and promulgate common stories that stress common, rather than different, values. Marketing people may typically dress more sharply than R&D people and put more emphasis on flash and dazzle. But stressing that will hardly encourage better cooperation. Instead, it will work better to stress, for example, persistence, originality and being willing to change based on feedback. These are values that are important for success in R&D and for success in Marketing. The story of Thomas Edison (light bulb; lead storage battery) and Ray Kroc (McDonald’s franchise) for instance, both show that success comes with persistence in the face of repeated failure.

3. Two companies merge. Let’s say one (a sports-focused media company) has a corporate culture that stresses work hard/play hard while the other (a sports-focused engineering company) culture stresses work hard/family time. If it’s really important for the two cultures to merge and then work together, promoting stories about the outrageous parties and wild orgies that the first company participates in will not be helpful. Instead, it will be good to find stories from both companies that stress the “work hard” part. Since both companies are concerned with sports, the settings and characters from stories can both utilize sports. But the values that are stressed should relate to working hard and the resultant rewards.

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4. Many nations in an entire region of the world; e.g., Europe, are sick of centuries of war and counter-productive bickering and the inefficiency that comes of contradictory rules and regulations on transportation, environmental protections and so on. Despite different cuisines, traditional dress, and languages, they wish to be able to cooperate more effectively. In furtherance of that goal, they form a “European Union” which promotes the freer interchange of products, ideas, and people. Together, they constitute a formidable trading block and military force. It is important in such an effort to find stories that stress commonalities and then make sure these are prominently communicated among all the members. By contrast, an agent who wants to weaken or divide such a union would promulgate stories, even false stories, that stress differences.

Resulting Context:

Once a newly merged group shares a common story or set of stories stressing common values, they are much more likely to experience a higher degree of trust. This will make interactions more pleasant in terms of the on-going experiences but will also result in more effective action in meeting common or overlapping goals.

Related Patterns: 

Build from Common Ground.

References: 

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

Darwent, S., Incledon, F., Keller, N., Kurtz, C., Snowden, D., Thomas, J.(2002) YOR920000749US2 Story-based organizational assessment and effect system (granted).

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. (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. (1999) Narrative technology and the new millennium. Knowledge Management Journal, 2(9), 14-17.


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Narrative Insight Method

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Narrative Insight Method

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Prolog/Acknowledgement: 

Since my dad worked mainly as an electrical engineer and my mother as an English/Drama teacher, I’ve always felt pulled in two directions: toward science, mathematics, systemization, practical solutions, and formalism and simultaneously toward the arts, particularly various types of storytelling. I finally had a chance to synthesize these two areas while managing a project for several years at IBM Research on the business uses of stories and storytelling. Though this project provided value in various ways to many within IBM, there was no single part of IBM whose main business was stories. For this reason, finding funding was a continual challenge. Our closest allies, apart from my senior manager, Colin Harrison, were The IBM Knowledge Management Institute, researchers at LOTUS, and a part of IBM internal education located in Atlanta. My group at IBM Research included Carl Tait, Andrew Gordon, Cynthia Kurtz, Debbie Lawrence, and Frank Elio. Larry Prusak and David Snowden from the IBM Knowledge Management Institute were particularly interested in stories as were Michael Muller, Dan Gruen, and Larry Moody at LOTUS. The method described here was mainly developed by Cynthia Kurtz, Dave Snowden, and Neal Keller of IBM Research Education though writing the method as a “Pattern” is my own responsibility.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created originally by John C. Thomas in January of 2002, and revised substantially during April, 2018.

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Synonyms: 

Story Circles.

Abstract: 

Experts learn valuable lessons from their experiences. Such lessons can guide less experienced people. In small trusted groups, a natural, effective, and traditional way for experts to share their knowledge is to trade stories (See, e.g., Orr, 1990, Talking about Machines). A challenge for large organizations is to extend this process to larger groups and non-co-located personnel. Writing stories is a possibility; however, in many cases experts are too busy to write stories and find the process of writing stories difficult and unnatural as compared with telling stories. The method describes here minimizes the time of the expert, allows them to tell stories in a natural setting and organizes the knowledge in a useful manner.

Basically, about 12-24 people who are all interested in a topic but have various levels of experience are brought together for an hour. After a short introduction, the large group is subdivided into smaller groups of 3-5 people each, making sure that each group includes at least one experienced person and at least one less expert. For about 35 minutes, the group tells stories about their experiences and these are recorded for later transcription and analysis. The small group decides which story would be best to share with the larger group. The “best” story from each subgroup is shared with the larger group and this is followed by a short discussion. This plenary session is also recorded. People are thanked for their participation and given some sort of very nominal gift or memento.

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Context: 

Within societies and organizations, people generally differentiate into specialties. Many of these specialties require years of training and experience before people reach maximum effectiveness. In most societies, mechanisms have been set up so that those with more experience can help those with less experience learn more effectively and efficiently than if every generation had to learn completely on their own. People tell stories for many reasons, but one major use of stories is to help create and share knowledge across levels of expertise and across generations.

Less expert people in a large organization or community of practice typically want to learn from more experienced people. This is beneficial for the individuals as well as for the larger organization or community of practice. In modern societies, many of the people who have relevant knowledge are physically distant from the people who need the knowledge. In many cases, much of the most valuable knowledge of experts is tacit knowledge.

An organization typically has people available who may not be expert in the subject matter but have relatively more expertise in writing stories and organizing educational materials. The experts in a given subject matter are typically very busy and in most cases, may lack both the skills and the time to produce good written stories.

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Problem:

Experts have valuable knowledge based on their experience. However, experts in organizations are typically very busy people. They are willing to share stories informally and orally but do not necessarily have the skill or patience to write stories. Moreover, it can be difficult to find stories relevant to a specific situation. In addition, stories often reveal lessons learned through the sharing of mistakes that were made by the experts. In fact, experienced people have generally made many mistakes through the course of their careers. They do not typically want to have all of these mistakes made public inside and outside of an organization.

If one is telling a story face to face, there are many cues about how the story is being received. The teller can sense whether the audience is understanding, interested, bored, or shocked for example. The teller can then adjust the story to suit the audience and the situation as they continue to tell the story. The writer of a story lacks this type of information to mold the story while it is being created.

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Forces:

· The time of experts is valuable.

· Subject matter experts are typically not experts in producing educational materials.

· People expert in producing education materials need to gain access to high quality content.

· In many fields, much of the most important knowledge that experts gain through their experience is in the form of tacit knowledge.

· Tacit knowledge is not well communicated by formal methods but can often be well communicated by stories*.

· Experts telling stories of their relevant experiences orally to small groups that contain other experts as well as some novices comprises a natural way for experts to share experience.

· Storytelling occurs only when the social situation is right.

· Telling a story about one’s experiences increases the probability that someone else in a group will also share a story about their experiences.

· Producing written stories requires special skills.

· Experts who have experience relevant to novices may be remotely located from them.

· Different learners learn best at different rates, by different media, and in different styles.

· Since stories often reveal errors on the part of the storyteller, it can be important in competitive organizations to hide the identity of the storyteller while retaining the lessons learned.

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Solution:

Provide an informal setting conducive to storytelling; this is encouraged by several factors. 1. Provide non-standard seating arrangements with easily movable chairs. 2. Conduct in a room with an informal atmosphere. 3. The structure and content of the invitation should be friendly but make clear the importance of the activity. 4. Gather a commitment to participate, making sure people know their time commitment is for one hour only. 5. Provide friendly but clear reminders near the time of the session with an additional check on the commitment to participate. 6. Provide refreshments at the beginning of the meeting. 7. Limit participation to a group of 8 to 20. 8. Groups should include experts as well as people knowledgeable in the topic but less expert. 9. Set expectations both prior to and during the session that people will be sharing stories, (E.g., “We find that when a group of experts get together like this, they generally end up telling stories about their experiences.”). 10. Make the recording clear but not obtrusive, and modeling storytelling at the outset.

During the session itself: 1. Greet people warmly and thank them for coming. 2. Break people into 3-4 smaller groups. 3. Each group should include a facilitator/recorder. 4. Digitally record the sessions with separate high quality tape recorders for each subgroup. 5. Tell the subgroups that they will be sharing stories based on their experiences and that then the group will choose one story from each subgroup to share with the larger group. 6. Implement this plan. 7. Facilitate to gently guide people back to telling stories of concrete instances (as opposed, for instance, to making general statements or pronouncements). 8. After each subgroup shares its story with the whole group, allow discussion to continue, encouraging but not insisting on storytelling.

Examples:

  1. We used this methodology to provide learning materials in the form of stories for NOTES 5. Such stories were not focused on how to invoke specific functions but rather on how to use NOTES to enhance your work practices or enhance team coordination and communication.
  2. We used this methodology to develop stories about “boundary spanning skills.” This was used for R&D personnel from a number of diverse organizations interested in organizational learning.
  3. Finally, we also used this method to develop learning materials for the IBM Patent Process based on multiple sessions.

Resulting Context:

After such sessions, it is necessary for the tapes to be transcribed and for analysts to find the lessons learned. The stories leading to the lessons learned were also included in shortened and anonymized format. In the case of the learning materials for the IBM Patent Process, the learning materials were in the form of Guided Exploration Cards. This form of documentation was originally developed by John Carroll and colleagues for product documentation. (See The Nurnberg Funnel, John Carroll, in references).  In other situations, stories and their lessons could be arranged in other ways.

While the intended “product” of using this method with respect to materials for “how to” produce patents were the Guided Exploration Cards, it also happened that master inventors and more novice inventors who were initially brought together for this exercise subsequently began additional fruitful collaborations and consultations. Indeed, sharing stories may typically have the effect of increasing group cohesion in the longer term as well as providing lessons learned.

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References: 

Carroll, J. M. (1990), The Nurnberg Funnel: designing minimalist instruction for practical computer skill. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Orr, J. (1996), Talking about machines: an ethnography of a modern job. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press. (Available on Amazon).

https://www.amazon.com/Talking-about-Machines-Ethnography-Collection/dp/0801483905

*Thomas, J., Kellogg, W., & Erickson, T. (2001), The Knowledge Management Puzzle: Human and Social Factors in Knowledge Management. IBM Systems Journal, 40(4):863 – 884.

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Music

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Music

Prolog/Acknowledgement: 

This “Pattern” most likely can be decomposed into various sub-patterns. It seems so obvious that music has historically played a huge role in fostering social cohesion across centuries and cultures that it is tempting not to bother arguing the case or bother to put it as a Pattern. However, music does not always seem to be a positive force for social cohesion. Parents arguing with their kids about music for example; bands famously “breaking up” despite spending hours of time playing music together and listening to low quality Muzak while on hold seem to indicate that the mere presence of music is not enough; some kind of analysis of the effects of music on teamwork, cooperation and coordination seems appropriate.

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Societies have traditionally engaged in drumming, singing, dancing and making music both “for fun” and as accompaniment to rites and rituals. In my own cultural upbringing in the Midwestern United States, music has been part of every church service, wedding, and funeral. Songs were sung in every camp where I worked. Singing, dancing, and the staging of musicals was a large part of the high school experience. For example, most of the high school yearbook pictures of activities involve either sports or music. Music has been such an integral part of my cultural tradition that I cannot point to specific origins of its use. Indeed, rhythm, tune and dance are not even limited to humanity but also play vital roles in social coordination among numerous species of insects and birds.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas April 11-12, 2018

Abstract: 

People typically enjoy listening to music and making music. Music can influence mood. If people listen to the same music, it can influence mood similarly across individuals as shown by the background music in cinema. There is ample evidence that music can be therapeutic in numerous ways across the lifespan (see references). Use appropriate music to help increase social cohesion. This can take the form of people listening to music or participating in its creation. In order for group music to “work,” whether classical symphony, jazz improvisation, a work song, military band, or caroling, it is necessary to pay attention to the larger group. Most cultures have developed music to help group coordination and cooperation. Most likely music has both an immediate, “in the moment” effect as well as a longer term positive effect on social capital.

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Context: 

Every person has their own concerns. We have our own individual bodies; our own friends and family; our own possessions; our own preferences; our unique education and personal experiences. Yet, people are happiest and most productive when they work together. In a highly complex and highly differentiated society in which people have very different roles and expertise, common experiences in the “workplace” have become less common. Hunting, gathering and agriculture often require people to work together on very similar tasks in the same place at the same time. In an “information economy” a person’s actual work may often be mainly solitary. Only the “results” need be communicated to someone else. In such circumstances, using music for the whole group is probably more important than ever.

Not everyone has precisely the same “tastes” in music. Some people prefer to do intellectual work without music while others find it useful. For this reason, it is not uncommon to see people at their individual work listening to their music privately via headphones. Similarly, on a family car trip, people may find it less argumentative to have everyone listen to “their own” favorite music rather than communicate, play a game or listen to or create common music. We may be missing opportunities for social cohesion though when music becomes only a vehicle for private enjoyment rather than a shared experience.

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Problem:

Because humanity lives in a highly inter-connected world, in many cases in close proximity to many others, we need to agree on how to allocate scarce shared resources and otherwise communicate and coordinate. Often, the interconnections of people in complex social and work situations are too complex and varied to “specify” in detail. It is vital to have a high degree of mutual trust and to collaborate and coordinate, not just through well-defined and precise set of rules and regulations, but through a sense of being part of a larger group.

In addition, people often have different professions, roles, backgrounds, experiences, educations, etc. This makes both communication and trust more challenging. Many of today’s communications are done remotely and in many cases, communication is limited to writing and reading text or the exchange of other purely instrumental communications; e.g., through forms, data, formulae, or signals. While such communication can be “efficient,” it is only effective when the situation being communicated about has been well-anticipated. In novel situations, it might not work at all and that is when people need to rely on each other in informal ways. In addition, while storytelling and conversing may seem “inefficient,” they are intrinsically more engaging and richer experiences for most people as compared with filling out forms.

Communication that is purely instrumental does little to encourage cooperation and build trust. Yet, because of the wide disparity in people’s backgrounds and experiences, as alluded to above, we need that cooperation and trust more than ever.

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Forces:

  • Groups of groups must sometimes work together to achieve common goals.
  • Subgroups may disagree with each other about the best use of resources to achieve those common goals.
  • In a drive to improve “efficiency,” rather than simply letting people talk, many business transactions are formalized and leave no room for expressive communication.
  • When the actual problem at hand requires people to work outside of the formalized transactions for a solution, it helps to have mutual trust.
  • Music that is shared, whether listened to, danced to, or created together, provides an opportunity to be expressive and build mutual trust.
  • Higher levels of mutual trust lead to better outcomes and provide more     pleasant experiences for all.

 

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Solution:

When possible encourage groups to engage in listening to or creating music together as a means to increase trust.

Examples: 

1. Early in the days of IBM, at the beginning of the day, employees sang company songs in unison.

2. Many high schools, colleges, and nations have songs that everyone in the group sings together. Many couples also agree on one song that is “theirs.”

3. In basic training, the military uses cadenced marching “songs” to help keep the group literally “in step” and encourage esprit de corp.

4. When multiple people row a boat, it is more efficient when the oars all hit the water at the same time. Most cultures that use rowers, also use songs to help coordinate the effort. Song is also used when a group of people has to pull or push something heavy.

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Resulting Context:

When people sing together, play music together or dance together; even when people listen to the same music, they are literally more “in synch.” Each person is individually in a better mood. The group as a whole identifies more with the whole group. Trust in increased.

A community, team, or group that regularly shares music together also experiences a longer term effect of increased mutual trust. Robert Putnam and his collaborators, Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Nanetti, in Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy found that the best predictor of both how people felt about various communities in Italy and how effective they were economically was best predicted by how many chorale societies they had.

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Related Patterns: 

Small Successes Early, Build from Common Ground.

Metaphors: 

In the vertebrate body, there is a heartbeat. The pulsing heart serves as a coordination event for the rhythm of the body. In the brain, there are various frequencies of “waves” and although the exact evolutionary advantage is not known, we may speculate that these help coordinate the overall response.

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References: 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20175359

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1744388114000516

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4021113/

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-94-017-8920-2_3

https://press.princeton.edu/titles/5105.html

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Author Page on Amazon –

https://www.amazon.com/author/truthtable

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Piano

Strike! the keys then smoothly skim along.
Strike! piano then sing your song.
Strike! down harder as the music flies.
Strike! once more as the music dies.

Murmur so softly to the moonbeams of blue;
Whisper quiet to the desert night.
Rolling, caroling, dancing, whirling,
Murmur down to nothingness and silence long.

Triumphantly, the snow falls now,
Majestically were love’s enow.
Chord full rich. Chord weird whines.
Empty fifths flow futilely along.

The rhythm picks up in a waltzing gate
And all the dancers can hardly wait.
The melody’s thinking, “All is great!”
This orgy of music will satiate.

Mellow and sadly, slowly going,
Seeds of sorrow steadily sowing,
From painful pathos fire growing,
Mood and madness never slowing.

Strike! the keys both loud and strong.
Strike! piano then live your song.
Strike! down harder as the music flies
Strike! once more as the music dies.

 

Positive Deviance

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Positive Deviance

Prolog/Acknowledgement: 

The idea for this Pattern comes from a book of that title.

I am continuing in the style of trying to write something that explains the Pattern and why it works along the lines of Christopher Alexander’s original book. For this particular suggested Pattern, it seems important to point out some of the caveats and challenges. I may be that this is important for all Patterns but I’m still puzzling over how much these should be a specific part of each Pattern.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas March 23-April 7, 2018

Abstract: 

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 those involved in the success stories to share what they do with their larger community. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_deviance

Context: 

Complex problems can often only be solved by groups. In some cases, a problem seems overwhelming, impossible, or insoluble.  People from the “Global North” for example, see a situation such as illiteracy or malnutrition and wish to use their resources and knowledge to solve a problem for others who are experiencing the problem. It is certainly worthy to want to help others and to share abundant resources. However, even when one is careful, it is easy to intervene in such a way that the problem is not really solved but only temporarily ameliorated. In other cases, the problem is actually made worse or the problem that is focused on is solved, but other even more severe problems result.

For example, a so-called primitive society may rely on hunting and gathering for its existence. The people are okay under normal circumstances but have no extra resources to “better” their life. Instead, they are taught by well-meaning people in the “Global North” to grow a cash crop that brings in enough money that they can buy a variety of foods as well as more clothing, medical supplies, and housing. This all works fine until the monoculture crop gets a disease. If the “primitive society” is lucky, this happens fairly quickly while the tribe still retains the necessary hunting, fishing, and gathering skills to survive. In worse cases, perhaps the skills or the lands needed no longer exist and the people are much worse off than they were before the intervention by the “Global North.”

Of course, not every such intervention is well-intentioned. In some cases, the real goal of the interveners is to make a lot of money off a crop of tea, coffee, opium, or cocaine. In other cases, the natives become miners for diamonds or precious metals. It might or might not also be an intention to destroy any possibility that the natives in the land can still live off that land in the way that they and their ancestors have done for millennia.

Even in the best of circumstances, there will be unknown and often deleterious side-effects of interventions. For example, perhaps the women of a particular tribe used to spend considerable time together in the village center pounding roots and talking with each other. Because they were doing this in the center of the village, they also easily helped each other watch all the village’s children and to watch for predators. During this time, all sorts of other “work” might also have been done. The women as a group may have solved many budding feuds within the tribe, or done gentle match-making, or experimented with different shaped tools and so on. Because they bonded with each other, they may have also made family break-ups due to infidelity less likely. The point is that an outside look at the culture may only see “inefficiency” in what is actually an effective social and economic system.

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Regardless of how it came to be, the fact of today is that many people in various parts of the world are in dire need of clean water, food, shelter, or medical care. Within the so-called “developed” world or Global North, there are other widespread problems such as the opioid crisis, obesity, vast wealth inequalities, and, in the United States, mass shootings. We tend to think of such large scale problems, regardless of the geography, as being both general and systemic. And we typically look to use analytical tools to diagnose problems and generate solutions to be imposed by the government or NGO. Such imposed solutions will almost always have unintended consequences, some of which will be negative.

Problem:

There are many problems in the world and the most severe have to do with people’s basic needs not being met. If one tries to solve a problem and then impose that solution, there is a good chance that the solution will be wrong. Even if it’s “correct” in solving the given problem, there’s a good chance that it will have negative side-effects that may be worse than the original problem. Moreover, even if the solution is “perfect” and avoids negative side-effects, it may still fail to be adopted because the people necessary for implementing the solution were insufficiently involved initially in finding, formulating, and solving the problem.

When it comes to problems in logic and mathematics, there can be some reasonable notion of the “goodness” of a solution which people will agree on, given enough background and training. However, problems in real world settings are generally too complex to allow of legitimate “proof.” People will have different values, preferences, and experiences so that they will tend not to agree unless everyone involved at least has a chance to feel as though they have been involved throughout the process.

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Forces:

  • Real world problems dealing with basic needs are likely to be complex. (If there were “simple” solutions, they would already have been found).
  • An outside group may have knowledge or perspective that allows them to see possible solutions that the people experiencing the problem may not know about or see.
  • Sometimes, people intentionally mislead others; they claim to have a solution to a problem based on superior knowledge or technology but actually, they are just manipulating others.
  • Even when operating with the best of intentions, outside problem solvers may not understand enough about the context, values, and culture to design solutions that will work.
  • People generally want to be consulted on decisions that impact their lives.

* Typically, people within a community are more trusted than outsiders.

  • When feedback loops are slow, delayed, or noisy, people may not know when they have solved a problem or made progress on it.
  • Most solutions to complex problems require the active cooperation of the people most affected in order to be implemented and maintained.
  • A proposed solution is more likely to be adopted if the solution comes from community members.

* In complex problems in the real world, there will often be a large variation in how well people are solving these on their own.

Solution:

When facing a complex, real world problematic situation, instead of having an outside group find, formulate and solve a problem and then try  to implement that solution, instead, seek to find people within the community who have already solved it or partially solved it. Help to understand the nature of the solution and facilitate the communication so that those who have solved it are aware of how they solved the problem and communicate it to the larger community.

Examples: 

1. The idea of “positive deviance” is similar to the progress in “best practices” that is often achieved in sports, arts, and crafts. For instance, in tennis, hitting the ball harder means your opponent has less time to get to the ball and more trouble judging how to hit their own shot. However, if a player hits the ball too hard, it will tend to go out of bounds. Some tennis players have experimented with hitting the ball with a huge amount of topspin. This allows the ball to be hit fast but with a trajectory that allows it to clear the net but still dive down into the court. Because such tennis players have tended to be successful, newer players try to copy these techniques.  Similarly, good weavers, painters, and writers try to understand how those who are “best” at the particular craft achieve the results that they do.

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2. In the opening example in Positive Deviance, aid workers are concerned about malnutrition among rural children in Viet Nam.  Various charities have, in the past, handed out additional foodstuffs to families and the children do better…for a time. Once the charity moves on or runs out of money, however, the nutritional needs stop being met and kids are just as bad off as they were before.

Instead, the authors of Positive Deviance discovered that among a large number of extremely poor rural families in Viet Nam, there were a few who had kids who were not suffering from malnutrition. In order to to find out why, they initially interviewed both these families and the (much larger) group of families whose kids did have malnutrition. These interviews revealed no differences. Of course, there are many possible explanations including luck of getting or not getting diseases or parasites or possibly genetic factors.

When the authors investigated by careful observation, however, they discovered three crucial differences between the numerous underweight kids and the few normal weight kids. First, the families of the normal weight kids included an older relative who fed the kids a noon meal every day. Most of the families fed the kids in the morning before going out to work in the rice fields all day and again upon coming home. The kids could only eat so much during two meals; though hungry, their stomachs were small capacity. The kids ate more total during three meals. Second, the families with healthier kids included in the daily soup, not only rice, but tiny crustaceans and bitter herbs that grew among the rice stalks. Third, the parents of healthier kids were more rigorous about hand-washing. All the kids were supposed to wash their hands before eating, but in the case of the healthier kids, if the family dog came up and the kid petted the dog during a meal, that kid would have to go wash their hands again.

After these discoveries were made, the authors of Positive Deviance did not “explain” to the villagers what the solution was. Instead, the kids were publicly weighed each week. The families of those who were of “normal” weight explained what they were doing. Some families adopted these practices and everyone could see that, over time, these kids began to thrive too. The community became convinced on the basis of what worked for others within the community and as explained by others in the community and they altered their behavior to match those in the community who had a better solution.

3. Of course, in some sense, having the whole species “learn” from the cases of “positive deviance” is more or less how major mechanisms of evolution work. There is always variation along many dimensions among the individuals of a species. In any given environment, there are some variations which will confer a relative advantage compared with others. Those with an “advantage” will tend to prosper and have more offspring that those who do not have this advantage. Over time, most of the members of the species will come to have the advantageous trait.

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Resulting Context:

Once people participate in a community-wide effort to see who and what is being successful and then understand what they need to change in their own behavior. The cohesion and self-efficacy of the community is increased. The solution tends to have fewer “side-effects” and is necessarily respectful of the community culture.

Related Patterns: 

Reality Check, Small Successes Early, Build from Common Ground.

Caveats and Limitations: 

There were no reported bad side-effects to implementing the nutrition and lifestyle changes suggested by the observations in the study. However, we must realize that there could be. For instance, it might have been the case that when everyone started harvesting the bitter herbs and crustaceans, those species might have been killed off. As a result, it could have turned out that none of the kids would now have that advantage.

In general, a solution that “works” for a small minority might not work if everyone does it. We can easily imagine a situation where a few people in a village of farmers are rich while most people are not. A thorough investigation might reveal that the few who are rich got that way because they cheated when they weighed their produce and stole from the church collection plate. This is obviously not a “solution” that will work when everyone does it!

References: 

Pascale, Richards & Sternin, Jerry. (2010). The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

http://www.betterevaluation.org/en/plan/approach/positive_deviance

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Author Page on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/author/truthtable

Give a Sympathetic Reading

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Give a Sympathetic Read

Prolog/Acknowledgement: 

As a high school debater, I instinctively knew that it was my job to find the holes in the arguments of the other side and then try to find arguments, examples, facts, figures, metaphors, and so on to try to show how those holes, however small, were fatal flaws. In my English literature and interpretation class at Case-Western University, however, I was first introduced to the notion of a “sympathetic reading.” Since English (and other natural languages) are extremely ambiguous and vague, if we want to understand what the author is getting at, it is vital to take a “sympathetic reading.” In other words, try to find one or more interpretations that do make sense rather than finding ones that do not make sense.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas March 28-30, 2018

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Abstract: 

In highly competitive societies, it is easy to fall into the habit of finding holes in the arguments of others and one easy way to do this is to exploit the ambiguity and vagueness of anything said in natural language. Instead, if there is an interest in teamwork and cooperation, it is important to first find a way to interpret the other person’s statements in a way that does make sense rather than a way that does not make sense. Instead, presume that the other person is trying to make a contribution and try to build on it. This imparts three advantages. First, it moves the problem solving forward. Second, it moves the problem solving process forward. Third, it makes the entire process more pleasant for everyone during the problem solving process.

Context: 

Complex problems can often only be solved by groups. In many cases, problem solving and design moves forward at least partly through the presentation of oral or written argumentation in natural language. In some cases, this is supplemented by models, sketches, or prototypes. Though generally less ambiguous than words, such artifacts still allow some ambiguity.

Naturally, there are some contexts for which using only a sympathetic reading is not appropriate. For example, if you are presenting a mathematical proof, you want your colleagues to find and point out any errors or ambiguities. Similarly, if you are aiding in a code walk-through, you want to point out cases where the proposed code will fail. The same holds for a usability walk-through. You want to find the cases where users will be confused or likely choose the wrong option.

There are many other contexts, however, where it is much more appropriate to find a sympathetic reading. These are contexts in which the team or group needs to work together to solve a problem, design a system, or reach a goal even though there may be disagreements along the way of how best to achieve a solution, system, or goal. This includes civic debate and disagreement on contentious issues. If you make the “worst possible” interpretation of someone else’s comments, instead of making any progress on the overall goal, you will instead end up in arguments about how to interpret things, what was meant, and the rules of grammar rather than the difficult issues that do need to be worked through.

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Problem:

Especially in competitive societies, it’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing every statement that has an absurd interpretation as an opportunity to “score points” against the “other side.” The ridiculous interpretation only serves as “proof” of how stupid or ill-informed the other side is (and, by comparison, how right and righteous your own side is). If every ambiguity and vagueness in an argument is treated in this way, very little if any progress will ever be made. It is the nature of natural language that such ambiguities abound. In fact, every attempt to “clarify” or “specify” what was meant will typically be another set of natural language statements that will only further proliferate into set of arguments about what was meant.

Examples:

You are working as a part of a large software development team of 500 people. Your generally reasonable project manager sends an email that says: “Remember: everyone is responsible for everyone writing bug free code.” A sympathetic and reasonable interpretation of this is that the entire software team will be rewarded on the basis of the success of the team as a whole and that therefore, the team needs to use a process in which all the code is double checked and that there is adequate time in the development schedule for testing the code. In all likelihood this is at least close to what was meant. Another interpretation, arguably closer to the precise words, is that all 499 people on the project are responsible for checking your code and that you are personally responsible for checking the code of each of the other 499 people. If your project manager is at all reasonable, this is not what they meant. What would be gained by pointing out that it’s not feasible to have everyone check everyone’s else’s code in detail?

In another case, you get instructions for a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Included is the statement, “Make sure you have a good pair of hiking boots that you fit into.” This may not be the best possible way to put this, but don’t show up in size 12 hiking boots just because your size 7 feet indeed “fit into” the size 12 hiking boots. Even more absurd would be to show up with a house-sized shoe like the mythical shoe of “Old Mother Hubbard” from the Mother Goose Nursery rhyme, because, after all, you need a shoe that big for you to fit into it (rather than just your feet).

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This procedure becomes even more important (and more difficult) when interpreting other people’s statements about a contentious political issue.  For example, someone might say, “We should license gun use the way we regulate automobiles.” This is admittedly a vague statement, but it does nothing toward problem solving if the retort is, “There’s nothing in the Constitution about driving automobiles!” or “So, you think a gun owner should be forced to take a driving test?” What is recommended instead is to assume a reasonable rather than an unreasonable interpretation and then discuss more precisely what kind of licensing, training testing make sense for guns. Or, someone says, “I want to have a gun to protect my family.” You could say, “How is that going to protect them from an atomic bomb or a plague or the heat death of the universe?” Again, the original statement is vague. It doesn’t really specify how a gun is going to help protect a family against which kinds of threats. If instead, the parties tried to specify various scenarios and see how likely the various scenarios are statistically, at the end, the parties might still disagree but at least they would be disagreeing based on differences they actually have about what they actually believe rather than a made up fantasy about what is believed, a fantasy constructed from rather intentionally misunderstanding or misinterpreting what is said to make it absurd, ridiculous, unethical, etc.

Forces:

  • Groups of groups must sometimes work together to achieve common goals.
  • Often the only practical way to communicate about complex situations is in natural languages.
  • Natural language is vague and ambiguous.
  • If one person seizes on the vagueness and ambiguity in natural language to set up a “straw man” argument, it fails to move problem solving forward.
  • If one person seizes on a ridiculous interpretation of another person’s statement, it makes the first person feel disrespected.

* When people feel disrespected, they are less likely to be cooperative.

  • When people feel respected, they are more likely to be cooperative.

Solution:

Therefore, when people are working together to try to solve a problem, design a system, or address an issue, it behooves everyone to take a sympathetic reading of the other person’s statements. 

Resulting Context:

Once people participate in debate, discussions, or dialogue in which everyone is attempting to find interpretations of each other’s statements that make sense, it increases trust and social capital. People stop wasting time trying to attack and defend positions that don’t even exist. Progress toward solutions is more likely for the particular issue at hand. Perhaps even more important, people are more likely to work together cooperatively in the future.

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Related Patterns: 

Reality Check, Iroquois Rule of Six, Build from Common Ground.

References: 

http://www.kmworld.com/Articles/Column/David-Weinberger/Perspective-on-knowledge-Sympathetic-Knowledge-105751.aspx

http://www.goingtoseminary.com/2009/09/08/an-ethic-of-reading/

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https://www.amazon.com/author/truthtable