Designing interventions requires new perspectives

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 28, 2006
Filed in Anecdotes, Culture

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:


  1. joitske says:

    great post! How about dealing with the potential conflict that comes with frame disruptions/encounters between people thinking within different frames of mind? And how about being able to work with it versus just experiencing discomfort? (I noticed when I was new in my organisation (with 7 other new colleagues) rarely did people ask for our impressions).

  2. Matt Moore says:

    “And how about being able to work with it versus just experiencing discomfort?”
    I think this question is a very important one – and a key one for facilitators.
    Shawn – How have you found dealing with the discomfort that a perspective shift entails?
    My point of view is that it’s critical that a faciliator not pull punches for participants – e.g. prevent discomfort or pain when comforted with something alien. But I’d be interested to hear other opinions…

  3. Nice…I remember a performance of The Tempest in High Park in Toronto which began in a similar way. Obviously homeless man wanders into the audience making all kinds of rude noises and stinking of alcohol. He causes a disturbance, moves down to the stage and passes out. Stage hand comes out but can’t move him.
    Homeless man takes off his garb and it’s Prospero, played by RH Thompson. Two people who had been most embarrassed by this actually left as the play started, driven out by shame I think.

  4. Thanks for the comments guys. The way you deal with dissent is very important. I’ve used two approaches; one is hands on and the other hands off. Both start with warning the group that the session might not be all beer and skittles and asking people to observe a couple of ground rules in dealing with difficult moments. One of these ground rules is to ask people to support their statements of facts with anecdotes, illustrations or examples–it seems to take the heat out. In the hands one version, when conflict arises I facilitate the discussion; in the hand off version I stand back and observe. Over time I have found that the latter approach is more effective.
    Chris, what is your experience in dealing with conflict in an open space environment?

  5. I’ve actually done the “Tempest” thing mentioned by Chris (though I hadn’t heard of it until just now) for a defence organisation, to preface a discussion on the need to become both more sensitive to complex risk, but also more prepared to respond… my drunk expat (it was in Singapore) reeled slowly and noisily through the large, seated audience which included some VIPs, he got to the front row of the auditorium (where the VIPs were) unimpeded, and then we switched all the lights off.
    I think it was a memorable way of introducing the idea (this was an important group of people, in an offsite event, so the security they normally employed around their headquarters building wasn’t in place) – but in retrospect they were so defensive about what it demonmstrated that it wasn’t productive in terms of insight or readiness to apply the insight… they spent much of the break after that explaining how they knew it was a spoof.
    I think sometimes too much discomfort can be a barrier to learning, and it takes a fine eye (and fairly intimate vis a vis the client) to judge when that might be the case.

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