Bohm Dialogue


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IMG_0706Bohm Dialogue


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

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on February 21, 2018



Campfire Reflections. Quaker meeting.


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Everyone raises their hands except Person 1].

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resulting Context:

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


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

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

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


Related Patterns: 

“Who Speaks for Wolf.” Reality Check.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Page on Amazon


Context-Setting Entrance


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Context Setting Entrance


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

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

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

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

To this, I say, “Amen!”

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


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

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


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

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on February 13, 2018


Set Appropriate Expectations


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


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


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

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

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

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




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


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



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

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

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

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

Resulting Context:

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


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

Related Patterns: 

Special Events. Greater Gathering.

Known Uses:


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



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

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

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



Greater Gathering


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Greater Gathering.

Author, reviewer and revision dates:

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

Reviewed by <> on <>

Revised by JCT on Feb. 7, 2018.

Prologue and Acknowledgements. 

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

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

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



Conference. Congress. Convention. Jamboree. National Holidays.


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


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

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



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

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

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


*People are naturally gregarious.

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

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

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

*All people share certain basic drives.

*Shared special events help build social bonds.

*People enjoy novel experiences and viewpoints, under some circumstances

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

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


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



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

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

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


Resulting Context:

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

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

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


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


Related Patterns:

Conversational Support at the Boundaries.

Known Uses:


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


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


The Iroquois Rule of Six


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Iroquois Rule of Six


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

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on February 2, 2018


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


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


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


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

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

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



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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Resulting Context:

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

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


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

Related Patterns: 

Reality Check, Check-In.

Known Uses:

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Meaningful Initiation


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Meaningful Initiation


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


Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on January 29, 2018



Appropriate Initiation


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


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


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

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



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


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


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


See link for examples of religious initiations:

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

Resulting Context:

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


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

Related Patterns: 

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

Known Uses:

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

Known Misuses:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Radical Collocation


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Radical Collocation.

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

Author, reviewer and revision dates:

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

Reviewed by <> on <>

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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*People are naturally gregarious.

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

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

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

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

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

*Space costs money and is therefore limited.

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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Resulting Context:

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


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

Related Patterns:

Conversational Support at the Boundaries.

Who Speaks for Wolf?

Known Uses:

War rooms, command centers, trials.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Small Successes Early: Metaphor & Fable


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This post is an extension to the Pattern —   Small Successes Early — and trials the addition of two more sections to the traditional form of a Pattern: Metaphor and Fable.


(This section is a departure from the traditional form of Patterns. It’s intent is to show how the same general principles that are embodied in the pattern also apply in other domains).

Life on earth, according to current estimates, has been around for 4.75 billion years. Evolution has had a long time to “learn” effective ways to do things. Have you ever seen an oak tree decide to migrate to a new place in the forest? Have you noticed it getting grumpy and yanking itself up by the roots and walking 30 meters to richer soil or closer to a stream and stabbing its roots back into the dirt in order to settle in its new place? (I mean apart from Tolkien’s Ents?) No, and neither have I. What does an oak tree do? It puts some energy into making acorns. Each acorn costs the tree (a tiny bit) in terms of water, soil nutrients, and sugar that it made from photosynthesis in its leaves. But it does not bet the farm on a better place. Some acorns will be scattered by squirrels onto new and better ground. If the conditions are just right the acorn will germinate and send up a small shoot and send down a primary root. Over time that acorn may grow into a mighty oak. Small successes early. Similar strategies are taken by other plants whether they propagate by runners, by seeds, or by spores. Animals typically also “start small.”

What can we learn from human practices that have evolved over millennia? For example, people have been building things for a long time. What are the practices around making a new building? People don’t just dig into a huge building project. They draw up plans; they discuss it; they typically build small scale models. If they see no problems with these models, they begin construction on the real thing. We think of these plans and models as being ways to coordinate the work and so they are. But they also serve a critical social purpose. Various stakeholders can look at the plans and models and question various decisions before there is a huge sunk cost.


What do people do when they want to put on a stage play? They don’t typically write a play and then immediately spend a huge amount of money advertising it, building scenery, making costumes and then sell tickets for the Broadway opening. No. People write a play and then do a “reading” with a small group of people. Many issues get ironed out. Eventually, people may cast the play and have people rehearse. Again, they need not do this with full costumes, make-up, and scenery. Instead, they “work out the kinks” in the play, occasionally changing lines, but very often changing the manner in which lines are said. In later stages, the blocking or lighting may change. Eventually, people have what are called “dress rehearsals” to make sure everything is working right. The producers want to insure that the scenery doesn’t fall down; that the costumes don’t rip; that people know their lines. In many cases, people open off-Broadway to give them a further chance for improvement before a Broadway opening with its potential for roasting by drama critics.

One of the longest running continuous institutions is the Catholic Church. Would you like to be elected Pope? Good luck with that. The Pope isn’t chosen by an open lottery or elected by the general populace who pick anyone they like. If you want to be Pope, you have to first pass through all sorts of “tests” to prove yourself as a Catholic; then, prove yourself as a Priest; after a long successful career, you may be eventually become a Bishop. Many professions that have had a long history developed similar though perhaps less elaborate hierarchies based on expertise and experience. They start with small successes. If you can handle lower level duties successfully, you move up the hierarchy from apprentice, to journeyman to master.

So, when it comes to biology, which has had billions of years of evolution, the tendency is overwhelmingly to use “Small Successes Early” and when it comes to human cultural evolution of roles and large scale processes that have been around for thousands of years, people use “Small Successes Early.” It is only some modern business managers who feel there is no need for such prudence because, after all, they are smart enough to foresee all consequences and therefore have no need for “Small Successes Early.”


(This section is another addition and departure from the form of a typical Pattern. It tries to encapsulate the basic idea of the Pattern into a fable similar to those of Aesop).


Rarin’ Rabbit hated the farmers who kept chasing him and his brethren from the gardens. The whole hutch spent as much energy going from their warren to the garden and getting chased back as they did from the occasional tasty morsel they managed to steal.

One bright day, Rarin’ Rabbit happened upon a dry creek bed filled with clover, purslane, and plantain. He immediately went back to the warren and convinced all his fellow rabbits to move their warren into the sides of the dry creek bed. Now, all they had to do for a great meal was step outside their front door! No farmers chasing them! It really did seem as though Rarin’ Rabbit had led his entire tribe to the promised land!

Rarin’ Rabbit grew immensely popular. One hot and humid day in late summer, Rarin’ Rabbit and his compatriots were munching on some wild roses that grew on the sides of the arroyo  when they heard thunder in the distant hills. Some of the rabbits got nervous and began wondering if the rain drops would come down on them. Some suggested perhaps that it was prudent to stop snacking and head back to the shelter of their warren. “Nonsense!” Rarin’ Rabbit protested. “There’s no rain here! Let’s keep eating till we’re as big as elephants! You have to dream greatly if you want to succeed greatly!” Most of the rabbits stayed for Rarin’ Rabbit was indeed quite popular — right up until the flash flood came hurtling down the canyon sweeping away Rarin’ Rabbit, all his companions, and the rabbit warren. Every last one drowned.


The moral of the story is: “Dream greatly. But test out your great dreams by first trying to find small successes early.”

Author Page on Amazon

Small Successes Early


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This is the third “Pattern” in a proposed “Socio-technical Pattern Language” that aims to capture best practices in collaboration and coordination at various levels of organization from having a civil society to having small groups work in ways that are: 1) enjoyable in the moment, 2) productive in terms of the end-product, and 3) build skills in the participants. The notions of “Patterns” a “Pattern Language” are described in more detail in the first of this series, “Special Spaces and Wonderful Places.” The idea for the pattern, Small Successes Early, crystalized from reading DeMarco & Lister’s excellent book, Peopleware.

Small Successes Early. 

Author, reviewer and revision dates:

Created by John C. Thomas, December 2001.

Reviewed in early 2002 by Alison Lee and Catalina Danis.

Revised and extended, January, 2018.


Start Small.


Many problems in a modern industrialized society require very large teams of relative strangers to work together cooperatively in order to design and build an adequate system or solution or to solve the overall problem. Yet, because of the sense of urgency and artificial “deadlines,” in many settings, people fail to take the time to learn to trust one another as well as to learn one another’s strengths and weaknesses and preferred styles of working. Plunging a large group of strangers immediately into a complex task often results in non-productive jockeying for position, failure, blaming, finger-pointing, etc. Therefore, insure that the team or community first undertakes a task that is likely to bring some small success before engaging in a complex effort.


A complex undertaking often requires the interaction of many people with various backgrounds, skills, and temperaments. Often, whether in an industrial setting, a community building effort, or in political life, many of these people have not worked together before. The group wants to get started and wants to be successful. Although their diversity is a potential source of strength, at first, there is likely to be natural confusion about how to proceed because people will have different experiences about the best way to organize and proceed.

As the pace of change in society increases, a greater and greater proportion of the work that people do cannot be done in a routine or top-down way. Such a “command and control” style can work well under some circumstances; for example, when the solution is knowable before starting and everyone can be counted on to know their exact function and to be motivated toward an outcome agreed upon by all. Even in such extreme cases, it can still be worthwhile for people to learn about each other before attempting a larger effort. Most teams, even when hierarchically controlled and doing repetitive tasks, will improve over time as they gain experience with each other. In complex tasks with emergent solutions, the effect of practice will be even greater.


  • Problems are often too complex for all aspects to be addressed simultaneously.
  • If a problem is understood, it is logically better to deal with the hardest constraints first.
  • The structure of complex problems often becomes more clear as people try to solve the problem.
  • A part of any complex problem solving process requiring more than one person is the interaction and relationship among the people.
  • People in a new team need to learn about each other’s skills, working styles, and trustworthiness.
  • When people get frustrated because of non-success, they tend to blame each other.
  • As people work toward a goal, the goal tends to become viewed as more valuable and therefore people are willing to work harder to reach it.


Therefore, when bringing new teams or organizations together, it is useful to begin with a small success. In this way, people begin to learn about each other and trust each other. People learn more about the nature of the problem domain. This makes tackling more difficult problems later relatively easier.


CHI Workshop On HCI for Development Began with Map-Making


At the kick-off to a new software development project, rather than having the people be invited to “attend” an event that is “thrown” for them, which might typically include a mind-numbing series of powerpoint presentations from executives about how much money the company will earn if the project is successful, instead, encourage the workers themselves to organize a party, cook-out, pot-luck, song-fest, or storytelling event among themselves. In the process of organizing and carrying out this activity, they will learn about each other’s styles, learn about the trustworthiness of others, and be encouraged by having a success.

Alternatively, the team might simply work on one small aspect of the problem to be solved, provided it is something fairly clear that will result in “success” quickly. For instance, the team might initially work profitably on short presentations about the project, posters, or scenarios but not immediately jump into working on a systems design or a requirements document.

At a workshop on “Human-Computer Interaction for Development” held in Florence (at CHI 2007), we began by having the group make a “map of the world” (shown above) with stones and other materials at hands. Although everyone who signed up was presumably interested in the topic, people were mainly strangers from many parts of the world and had not worked together before. We not only jointly created the map but then had people engage in simple tasks that made use of the map; e.g., stand somewhere close to where you were born; stand somewhere you’d really like to visit but never have; stand somewhere representing a wonderful experience. In an earlier workshop on “Cross-cultural issues in Human Computer Interaction” (CHI 1992 in Monterey), the workshop room was set up like a classroom so our first task was to work together to jointly re-arrange the furniture in the room into a kind of “circle.”


As people experience team success, they tend to view the others in the team more positively. Teamwork is often hard under the best of circumstances. In highly complex problems, when people come together from different cultures, backgrounds, or agendas, it often becomes so difficult as to seem impossible. Rather than having people simultaneously attempt to solve a complex problem and at the same time learn to work together as a team, it is often more effective to separate the otherwise tangled problems.

First, have the people solve a tractable problem where it is clear to everyone that they have a common agenda. A successful experience working together to solve that simple problem will help people learn each other’s styles, strengths, weaknesses and so on. With this knowledge and trust, they can now move on to try to solve more difficult problems.


The human factors psychologist James Welford was called in as a consultant to deal with what appeared to be a very large age effect. People over 35 were having a tremendous difficulty learning new hand weaves. The difficulty, as Welford discovered, was in having older people try to solve two tangled problems. On the one hand, it was hard for older workers to see the actual threads and second, it was hard to learn the weave patterns. What Welford did was introduce a short training segment with very large, quite visible cords. Once people had mastered the weave patterns with these large cords, they were then transferred to the much smaller production size. This eliminated the so-called “age effect” and in fact, both older and younger people learned much more effectively and efficiently.

In similar fashion, trying to solve a complex problem with virtual strangers, especially when there is reason to believe there may be a difference in agendas, is a “tangled problem.” Untangling the “getting to know people” aspect from the complex production or design task will help insure ultimate success.

Some care should be given to the task and setting. The “small successes early” task should allow some degree of give and take, some opportunity for expressive (not just instrumental) communication. People should have the opportunity and space for doing something creative, for sharing stories, for physical interaction. Ideally, it should either be somewhat task related, domain related, or be something nearly everyone enjoys (e.g., eating, playing music, dancing, hiking).



DeMarco, T. and Lister, T. ( 1999) Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. (2nd Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ. : Addison-Wesley.

Schuler, D. (2008). Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT 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.

Author Page on Amazon

Special Spaces & Wonderful Places

“Reality Check”


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This is the second in a series of blogs that present Patterns in a Socio-technical Pattern Language of best practices for collaboration and coordination in complex societies. I intend to organize these in multiple ways (e.g., type of goal; where in a typical development process the pattern is most applicable; how large a collection of people the pattern is most applicable to, etc.).  I am entering them in this blog in an order that reflects current events. For example, there seems to be a movement to deny reality outright and insist everyone simply believe what the leaders promulgate. This, to me, is outright evil. But even when people are acting with the best of intentions, it is natural to take short cuts. Those short cuts can make life seem more efficient in the short run, but it can also lead to serious issues in the longer term.

Reality Check

Author, reviewer and revision dates:

Created by John C. Thomas on 4 September, 2001

Revised, JCT, 17 December, 2001

Revised, JCT, 15 January, 2018



In developing complex systems, it is often expedient to develop feedback loops based on ersatz measures of what we are really interested in assessing and controlling. While this seems expedient in the short term, it often leads to serious problems and distortions, particularly in times of crisis or transition when the correlation between ersatz measures and actuality substantially drifts or even suddenly disconnects. Actions can be based on these measures or models of reality rather than on reality(or more complete measures) and result in negative consequences. The solution is to perform regular “reality checks” to insure that measures or indicators of reality continue to reflect that reality.


In developing complex systems, it is often expedient to develop feedback loops based on ersatz measures of what we are really interested in assessing and controlling. While this may seem expedient in the short term, it often leads to serious problems and distortions, particularly in times of crisis or transition when the correlation between ersatz measures and actuality substantially drifts or even suddenly disconnects. Actions can be based on these measures or models of reality rather than on reality. This can result in negative, even deadly, consequences.



Many problems were partly responsible for the disaster at the Three Mile Island. One crucial problem, in particular, arose from the design of a feedback loop. A switch was supposed to close a valve. Beside the switch was a light that was supposed to show that the valve was closed. In fact, rather than having the light go on as the result of actual feedback from the valve closure itself, the signal light was merely a collateral circuit to the switch. All it actually showed was that the switch had moved position (Wickens, 1984). Under normal operation; that is, when the valve was operating properly, these two events were perfectly correlated. At a critical point in the meltdown, however, the valve was not operating properly. Yet, the human operator believed that the valve was closed even though it had failed to close in reality. His resulting actions, taken on the basis of the assumption that the valve was closed, exacerbated the subsequent problems. My colleague, Scott Robertson, has recently posted an analysis of the recent error that resulted in the nuclear missile scare in Hawaii. (See link).

View story at

In running an application program several years ago, I was given a feedback message that a file was posted. In fact, it wasn’t. The programming team of the application, rather than checking to see whether the file was actually posted, merely relied on the completion of an internal loop.

In advertising campaigns, it is difficult to measure the impact on sales. Instead, companies typically measure the “recall” and “recognition” rates of ads. This may often be correlated with sales changes, but in some cases, the ad may be very memorable but give the customer a very negative impression of the company and decrease the chances of actually selling a product.

Historically, monarchs and dictators (and even would-be dictators) often surrounded themselves only with people who gave them good reports and support no matter how their decisions impacted the reality of their realm. Eventually, the performance of such people tends to deteriorate severely because their behavior is shaped by this ersatz feedback rather than by reality.


During the “oil crisis” in the seventies, oil companies relied on mathematical models of continually increasing demand. Year after year, for seven years, they relied on these models to predict demand despite the fact that, for all seven years, demand actually went down. The results are purported to have cost them tens of billions of dollars (Van der Heijden, 1996).

In some cases, the known existence of ersatz measures directly contributes to the destruction of the utility of these very measures. For example, if management decides the “easy way” to measure programmer productivity is “Lines Of Code,” once programmers discover this, the code base may grow quickly in terms of that measure, but not in terms of actual functionality.


In America @2018, many people view money as the only legitimate value of interest for countries, companies, or individuals. Measures such as the GDP and the stock market index are taken as adequate and complete measures of the economic well-being of the society. There is a sense that, since we spend the most on weapons and health care, we must perforce be the “safest” and “healthiest” nation on the planet. This is clearly not the case. Similarly, ads talk about a person’s “net worth” when what they are really talking about is merely a person’s net financial worth. “Worth” is not the same as “financial worth.”

A large research organization that I am familiar with used to have a large number of administrative assistants who helped arrange meetings, send in expense reports, and answer telephones. At some point, most of these administrative assistants were laid off and the tasks were now done by the researchers themselves who were typically not nearly so efficient at them. The researchers took at least as long to do them as had the administrative assistants. Accountants looked favorably at all the “money they had saved” because they could easily see that the line item for administrative assistants was far less costly than it had been. Not visible, of course, was the fact that the much more highly paid researchers were now doing the same work that had been done before by the administrative assistants, but they were doing it less efficiently and at a far higher cost.


* Organizations are often hierarchically decomposed and bureaucratic. Therefore, it is often simplest to communicate with those close to us in the hierarchy and to build systems that rely for their model of reality only on things within the immediate control span of our small part of the organization.

* While more comfortable to limit system design and development to those things within one’s own team or department, it is often precisely the work necessary to capture more reality-based measures that will reveal additional challenges and opportunities in business process coherence.

*A more direct measure of reality is often more time-consuming, more costly, or more difficult than the measure of something more proximal that is often highly correlated with those aspects of reality of real interest.

*It is likely to be exactly at times of crisis and transition that the correlation be-tween proximal ersatz measures and their referent in reality will be destroyed.

*It is likely to be exactly under times of crisis and transition that people will tend to simplify their cognitive models of the world and, among other things, forget that the proximal measure is only ersatz.



Whenever feasible, feedback should ideally be based on reality checks, not solely on ersatz measures. When this is too costly (as opposed to merely inconvenient or uncomfortable), then at least design systems so that the correlation between proximal measures and their referent in reality is double-checked periodically.



Rather than rely solely on a circle of politically minded advisors, Peter the Great disguised himself and checked out various situations in Russia in person.

As reported by Paula Underwood (who was the designated storyteller for her branch of the Iroquois), her ancestors at one point felled giant trees for long houses in the Pacific Northwest. Later, when the tribe lived in the “Great Plains”, there were no trees of that size. The tribe began to doubt the existence of trees as large as what their oral history portrayed. In order to check on this, one brave spent many years walking back to that area and seeing with his own eyes that there were indeed trees as tall as had been portrayed in the oral history and then returning to the tribe to report back.

Resulting Context:

Ideally, over time, people who actually double-check reality will come to better understand when and how these reality checks will be necessary. They may also invent methods of making a check-in closer to what is really of interest more convenient or cheaper.

Related Patterns:

System as a Whole

Convergent Measures

Drawing the Line

Who Speaks for Wolf

Known Uses:

Richard Feynman, during the Manhattan project, noticed that the bureaucracy was worried about the possibility of accidentally stockpiling a critical mass of uranium. To prevent this, each section chief was required to insure that their section did not have a critical mass. To insure this, each section chief instructed each sub-section chief to insure that their subsection didn’t have a critical mass and so on, down to the smallest level of the bureaucracy. Upon hearing this plan, Feynman observed that neutrons probably didn’t much care whose subsection they reported to!

In another incident reported by Feynman, various bureaucrats were each trying to prove that they had better security than their peers. In order to prove this, they escalated the buying of bigger and thicker safes. The bigger and thicker the safe, the more bureaucrats felt that they had made their secrets secure. Feynman discovered that more than half of the super-safe safes had been left with the factory installed combinations of 50-50-50 and were therefore trivially easy to break into!



Wickens, C. (1983). Engineering psychology and human performance. Columbus: Merrill, (p.1).

Van der Heijden, K. (1996). Scenarios: The art of strategic conversation. Chichester: Wiley.

Hutchings, E., Leighton, R., Feynman, R., and Hibbs, A. (1997). Surely, you’re joking Mr. Feynman. New York: Norton.

Underwood, P. (1993). The Walking People: A Native American oral history. San Anselmo, CA: Tribe of Two Press.


“Who Speaks for Wolf?”


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This is the first of many socio-technical “Patterns” in a socio-technical Pattern Language meant to encapsulate best practices for collaboration and coordination. The common “parts” of every Pattern are displayed below in bold. A brief discussion follows the Pattern.

Who Speaks for Wolf?

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on December 17, 2001

A shorter version is included in Liberating Voices by Douglas Schuler.

A longer version was published as an IBM Research Report, 2002.

Reviewed by <John C. Thomas> on <January 9, 2018>

Revised by <John C. Thomas> on <January 9, 2018>



Engage all the Stakeholders


A lot of effort and thought goes into decision making and design. Nonetheless, it is often the case that bad decisions are made and bad designs conceived and implemented primarily because some critical and relevant perspective has not been brought to bear. This is especially often true if the relevant perspective is that of a stakeholder in the outcome. Therefore, make sure that every relevant stakeholder’s perspective is brought to bear early.


Problem solving or design that proceeds down the wrong path can be costly or impossible to correct later. As the inconvenience and cost of a major change in direction mount, cognitive dissonance makes it likely that the new information will be ignored or devalued so that continuance along the wrong path is likely.


Complex problems such as the construction of new social institutions or the design of complex interactive systems require that a multitude of viewpoints be brought to bear. Unfortunately, this is all too often not the case. One group builds a “solution” for another group without fulling understanding the culture, the user needs, the extreme cases, and so on. The result is often a “system” whether technical or social, that creates as many problems as it solves.

The inspiration for this pattern comes from a Native American story transcribed into English by Paula Underwood.

In brief, the story goes as follows. The tribe had as one of its members, a man who took it upon himself to learn all that he could about wolves. He became such an expert, that his fellow tribespeople called him “Wolf.” While Wolf and several other braves were out on a long hunting expedition, it became clear to the tribe that they would have to move to a new location. After various reconnaissance missions, a new site was selected and the tribe moved to the new location.

Shortly thereafter, it became clear that a mistake had been made. The new location was in the middle of the spring breeding ground of the wolves. The wolves were threatening the children and stealing the drying meat. Now, the tribe was faced with a hard decision. Should they move again? Should they post guards around the clock? Or, should they destroy the wolves? And, did they even want to be the sort of people who would kill off another species for their own convenience?

At last it was decided they would move to yet another new location. But as was their custom, they also asked themselves, “What did we learn from this? How can we prevent making such mistakes in the future.” Someone said, “Well, if Wolf would have been at our first council meeting, he would have prevented this mistake.”

“True enough,” they all agreed. “Therefore, from now on, whenever we meet to make a decision, we shall ask ourselves, ‘Who speaks for Wolf’ to remind us that someone must be capable and delegated to bring to bear the knowledge of any missing stakeholders.


  • Gaps in requirements are most cheaply repaired early in development; it is important for this and for reasons of acceptance (as well as ethics!) by all parties that all stakeholders have a say throughout any development or change process.
  • Logistical difficulties make the representation of all stakeholder groups at every meeting difficult.
  • A new social institution or design will be both better in quality and more easily accepted if all relevant parties have input. Once a wrong path is chosen, both social forces and individual cognitive dissonance make it difficult to begin over, change direction or retrace steps.


Provide a way to remind everyone of stakeholders who are not present. These could be procedural (certain Native Americans always ask, “Who Speaks for Wolf” to remind them) or visual or auditory with technological support.


In “A behavioral analysis of the Hobbit-Orcs problem,” I discovered that people find it difficult to solve a simple puzzle because it appears that they must “undo” progress that has already been made.

As a positive case, some groups make it a practice to “check in” at the beginning of any meeting to see whether any group members have an issue that they would like to have discussed. In “User Centered Design”, and “Contextual Design” methodologies, an attempt is made to get input from the intended users of the system early on in the design process.

In a negative case, we developed a system to help automate “intercept calls” for a telecommunications company. We tested the end users to make sure it was workable. When we went to install the system, however, we learned that the folks in charge of central offices, would not allow our software to be installed until we provided documentation in the same format that they were used to from AT&T. So, we redid all the documentation to put it into the AT&T format. At that point, our lawyers, however informed us that that format was “copyrighted” so we could not simply use it. In this case, although many stakeholders were consulted, we had left out two important constituencies. (Eventually, the system was deployed — the first in the US that incorporated speech recognition into an application on the Public Service Network.

Resulting Context:

When every stakeholder’s views are taken into account, the solution will be improved in quality and in addition, there will be less resistance to implementing the solution.


Much of the failure of “process re-engineering” can be attributed to the fact that “models” of the “is” process were developed based on some executive’s notion of how things were done rather than a study of how they were actually done or asking the people who actually did the work how they were done. A “should be” process was designed to be a more efficient version of the “is” process and then implementation was pushed down on workers. However, since the original “is” model was not based on reality, the “more efficient” solution often left out vital elements.

Technological and sociological “imperialism” provide many additional examples where the input of all the stakeholders is not taken into account. Of course, much of the history of the US government’s treatment of the Native Americans was an avoidance of truly including all the stakeholders.

A challenge in applying the “Who Speaks for Wolf” pattern is to judge honestly and correctly whether, indeed, someone does have the knowledge and delegation to “speak for Wolf.” If such a person is not present, we may do well to put off design or decision until such a person, or better, “Wolf” can be present.

Related Patterns: 

Radical Co-location (Provided all stakeholders are physically present in the radical co-location, this tends to insure that their input will be given at appropriate times).

Known Uses:

As a variant of this, a prototype creativity tool was been created at IBM Watson Research Center. The idea was to have a virtual “Board of Directors” consisting of famous people. When you have a problem to solve, you are supposed to be reminded of, and think about, how various people would approach this problem. Ask yourself, “What would Einstein have said?” “How would Gandhi have approached this problem?” And so on. The original prototype consisted of simple animations. Today’s technology would allow one to develop a raft of chat-bots instead.


Thomas, J. C. (1974). An analysis of behavior in the hobbits-orcs problem. Cognitive Psychology, 6(2), 257-269.

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

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

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

Underwood, Paula. (1983). Who speaks for Wolf: A Native American Learning Story. Georgetown TX (now San Anselmo, CA): A Tribe of Two Press.



I have personally found this pattern to extremely useful in a variety of social and business situations. In some ways, it seems like “common sense” to get the input of everyone touched by a decision. But we live in a very “hurried” society as I earlier examined in the Blog Post “Too Much.” I’ve seen many projects hurried through design and development without taking a sufficient look at the possible implications for various stakeholders. There is currently what I consider a reasonable concern over what the impact of AI will be. But other technologies on the horizon such as biotechnology and nanotechnology also need to be thought about. As we examined in a whole series of blog posts in the fall of 2017, social media have had huge unintended (and negative) consequences.

I’ve also been involved in “cross-cultural issues” in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and in how HCI impacts people and societies in other cultures. Even relatively simple technologies like dishwashers, microwaves, and cars often have considerable unanticipated social consequences. It is not only the “fair” thing to involve everyone who will be seriously impacted; it will ultimately result in faster progress with less strife.

I’m very interested in other people’s experiences relevant to this Pattern.


“Turing’s Nightmares” – scenarios of possible AI futures.