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Barriers and attractors – the practicalities of words

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 8, 2005
Filed in Communication

I’ve had the good fortune to work with Dave Snowden and Cynthia Kurtz at IBM while we were developing approaches to designing interventions using barriers and attractors. In fact, at the time Dave and I had both developed separate, yet similar, approaches to intervention design: Dave’s was called ABIDE (Attractors, Barriers, Identity, Diversity/Dissent and Environment) and mine was FABRIC (Feedback, Attractors, Boundaries, Rationale, Interaction and Context). Here is a description of Dave’s approach as captured by the AOK moderator Jerry Ash.

I’ve now conducted 5 or so intervention design workshops using ABIDE and I have discovered that the term ‘barrier’ is problematic. With ABIDE a ‘barrier’ is anything which impedes action. An obvious barrier is the physical layout of an office but there are many non-physical barriers such as the organisation’s structure (the silos), people’s professional status and access to resources (who gets funded). ‘Barriers’ define the containers which impede action.

The problem faced in a workshop setting is that the term ‘barrier’ is loaded. No matter how carefully you explain what you mean by a barrier participants translate the definition to mean, “a barrier is a problem.” Here is a typical workshop participant’s train of thought in this matter: “Oh yes, culture is a barrier and so is our lack of leadership. But the biggest barrier we face is getting people to commit to the project.” Quickly the conversation moves away from identifying the bounds which contain the action, to a list of problems that should be tackled. It becomes confusing for everyone.

While the term ‘boundary’ doesn’t strongly suggest something that inhibits action, I have found it to be a more useful term in the intervention design workshop setting. As you can see, while the term barrier might be the most accurate it is less than practical in getting the desired outcome—ie. a useful complexity based intervention. Words are powerful things.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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