Designing interventions for complex environments requires the designers to see new patterns. Before I elaborate on this idea here is a story Steve Denning told today on the workingstories email list.
John Seely Brown sometimes tells a story (which he says is true) of a board meeting of a Fortune 100 corporation that took place one evening in downtown San Francisco in a neighborhood that had become quite dicey, with many vagrants and homeless people hanging around.
The directors were just sitting down to a luxurious meal in the building where the meeting was taking place. when there was a loud knocking on the door. The knocking was increasingly loud and menacing, and the board members suggested to their host that it might be wise to ignore it and not open the door.
But the host said no, it would be fine: the people in the neighborhood meant no harm. So he opened the door and indeed there were a couple of homeless men, ill-kempt, poorly dressed, and none-too-clean. They said that they were hungry and needed food.
To the horror of the board members, the host invited them in, and said, Sure, we’ve got a lot of good food. Come on in. Sit down. Make yourself at home.
So the homeless men sat down at the table and started greedily gobbling up the caviar, the foie gras, the salmon, the lobster and the rest.
Finally, when the homeless men reached a pause in their eating, they turned to the alarmed board members and asked: where did all this food come from? How come they had so much expensive food on hand?
The board members answered hesitantly that they were the board members of a big corporation and they were having an important meeting and food was a normal accompaniment of such meetings.
And the homeless men started asking, why don’t you share some of this with people like us? We are hungry. We need food. Would you really miss it if you shared some of it with us? What does your company do? Don’t your ads say that you care about people like us?
The conversation went on like this for a while, as the homeless men’s questions became more and more insistent – why should the board members have all this food and we have none? Is this fair? Is this reasonable?
The board members’ answers became steadily more defensive.
After this had gone on for a while, and the board members became increasingly concerned as to how it was going to end, the host revealed that the homeless men were actors, whom the host had engaged, as a prelude to an item on the agenda about the board’s social responsibility.
JSB doesn’t say what happened in the ensuing board discussion but my guess is that, whenever those board members saw homeless people after that, they viewed them with a different frame.
That’s one (rather elaborate) way to disrupt the frame.
The ability to see new patterns can be facilitated in a number of ways:
- New eyes—introduce people with different background and way of seeing the world and new patterns become evident
- New frameworks—a powerful new framework will help you see the world differently. I remember the first time I saw they Cynefin framework and from that day on I could see ‘complex’ phenomena.
- New experiences—people can talk about how something works but until you experience it the effects are typically limited.
- New combinations—Darwin famously envisaged a model of evolution via selection by combining Malthusian economics and countless observation made on the Beagle.
Our job in helping people design interventions is to create environments where new patterns can be seen. The above story is an excellent example of creating new experiences.
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: