To celebrate the launch of new pamphlet ‘From Fairy tale to reality’ I’m writing ‘Facilitation Fables’ every Friday throughout February (I’ve already done fable number one, fable number two and fable number three). In this fourth instalment I look at a fable where I think good engagement could have changed the end result. The fable for this week is ‘The Fox and the Stork’:
The Fox and the Stork
A Fox invited a Stork to dinner, at which the only fare provided was a large flat dish of soup. The Fox lapped it up with great relish, but the Stork with her long bill tried in vain to partake of the savoury broth. Her evident distress caused the sly Fox much amusement. But not long after the Stork invited him in turn, and set before him a pitcher with a long and narrow neck, into which she could get her bill with ease. Thus, while she enjoyed her dinner, the Fox sat by hungry and helpless, for it was impossible for him to reach the tempting contents of the vessel.
A number of fables deal with the negative impact of conflict. The petty tit for tat vindictiveness of the Fox and the Stork is laughable. In other fables the conflict is not quite so harmless. For example in the fable of the Eagle and the Fox the two animals end up eating each other’s offspring. We have probably all seen situations where organizations, communities and families are torn apart by conflict. Conflict comes at a high price, it leads to spiteful behaviour and ‘lose-lose’ outcomes which often get worse over time.
Luckily there are a number of approaches to overcome conflict. So how could this all have been solved? Here’s a rewrite:
The conflict between the Fox and the Stork got worse and worse. The Fox played loud music to keep the Stork up late at night; the Stork retaliated by spreading malicious rumours about the Fox. Before long both animals had competing law suits against the other and the whole neighbourhood was choosing sides. All of this conflict and commotion was noticed by the humble Tortoise (this happened at a time before his successful career as a racer). The Tortoise knew that something had to be done and tried to get the Fox and the Stork to talk to each other, but both refused. “He has to apologise to me first” said the Fox. “He’s the one with the problem, not me” said the Stork. The Tortoise was a trained facilitator and came up with a plan.
He knew that it was a long term plan. He spoke to the Fox and Stork’s close friends to reach out to the two angry animals. The friends of the Stork and the Fox managed to convince them to meet with the Tortoise individually. The Tortoise sat over numerous sessions and listened to the concerns and the worldviews of the two animals. After a number of sessions the Fox and the Stork agreed to meet together. The first meeting was tense, with lawyers in the room and both combatants threatening to walk out. The Tortoise had to set up some very strict ground rules, including rules about not interrupting and using positive language. They did a number of exercises of listening to each other and trying to see the situation from the perspective of the other person but little progress was made. Both the Fox and the Stork complained bitterly about how the Tortoise was wasting their time. “Fantastic” said the Tortoise “I’d like you both to write a joint list about things that you are unhappy about how I’ve run the process so far”. The Fox and the Stork worked together on the list and after this the conversation flowed a little easier. They began to find areas where they agreed.
The next meeting they dispensed with the lawyers and instead met in a more relaxed setting. As more and more common ground opened up the Stork exclaimed “You seem really nice Mr Fox, I don’t understand why you’ve been playing rude pranks on me ever since you met me?”. “That’s how foxes show people that they like them Mr Stork. What’s rude is your unwillingness to complement me on my pranks.” The two animals began to realise that while they would perhaps never share the same values they could at least understand each other.
The Tortoise suggested that the two animals agree to work together on a project that was important to both of them and the Fox and Stork decided to clean up a local park. At the end they shook hands. “I think I misunderstood you Mr Fox. I’ll never understand why you insist on playing silly pranks, but at least now I know that you don’t mean any ill will.” “And I’ll never understand how you can stand being so stiff necked and humourless, but I know your heart is in the right place.”
Two weeks later, to celebrate the fact that the two animals had agreed to be friends, the Tortoise organised a banquet dinner. The waiter approached the table and asked “Would you like Soup for your starter?” As one the Fox, the Stork and the Tortoise responded “Absolutely not!” and laughed.
Facilitation has a number of key techniques for overcoming conflict, including ground rules, dialogue and mediation. We know how to frame conversations positively and work on uncovering areas of consensus, even in cases of extremely deep seated anger and conflict. Clearly these techniques were not always available in Aesop’s time.
I hope you enjoyed this fourth instalment of Facilitation fables. Next week we will finally launch our new publication. This series of interlinked posts has been a departure for me and for Involve. If you liked it let me know and I’ll think about if there is merit in doing something similar in the future.
To celebrate the launch of new pamphlet ‘From Fairy tale to reality’ I’m writing ‘Facilitation Fables’ every Friday throughout February (You can find fable number one and fable number two). In this third installment I look at a fable where I think good engagement could have changed the end result. So I thought I’d have a go a rewriting it. The fable for this week is ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants’: The Grasshopper and the Ants
One fine day in winter some Ants were busy drying their store of corn, which had got rather damp during a long spell of rain. Presently up came a Grasshopper and begged them to spare her a few grains, “For,” she said, “I’m simply starving.” The Ants stopped work for a moment, though this was against their principles. “May we ask,” said they, “what you were doing with yourself all last summer? Why didn’t you collect a store of food for the winter?” “The fact is,” replied the Grasshopper, “I was so busy singing that I hadn’t the time.” “If you spent the summer singing,” replied the Ants, “you can’t do better than spend the winter dancing.” And they chuckled and went on with their work.
As a child I always found this fable very harsh. I felt sorry for the poor grasshopper who hadn’t thought things through. As human beings we often face this problem –long term thinking isn’t our strength. We don’t save enough for our pensions, we don’t invest enough in our own health, and we don’t stop smoking until it is too late. The case of the boiling frog, unaware of his predicament or classic cases of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, such as over-fishing show that this is often a true representation of what happens in real life. We could chalk this up to human nature (and we’d be partially right) but this doesn’t make it inevitable. Here’s my rewrite of how facilitation might have helped:
A Young Ant looked at the grasshopper starving and freezing and asked her Ant colleagues if this had happened before. “Oh, every winter it’s the same thing” they said “We warn them in the summer that they need to prepare for winter, they never listen and then they come begging when the snow starts falling”. “We have to do something” Said the young Ant. The other ants rolled their eyes and did their best to ignore her, but she was so insistent that in the end the other Ants decided to appoint her the head of a ‘Task force’ to get her out of their hair.
The Young Ant sat down with her colleague, a very Judgmental Ant to figure out what to do. ‘Let’s run a campaign in the spring” said the Judgmental Ant, “We run a slogan like ‘Don’t be lazy –Save!’”. So they tried that, but soon it became obvious that the campaign wasn’t working. One particularly Boastful Grasshopper wrote a hit song mocking the campaign called ‘Don’t be boring –Sing!’. The Judgmental Ant threw up his many arms and said “We should just give up; these ungrateful grasshoppers will never change!” The Young Ant, however would not be so easily discouraged.
She moved in with a grasshopper family to carry out some Observational research. She wanted to understand why the grasshoppers loved singing so much, why it was important and what values they held. It very quickly became obvious that the existing campaign was great for the hardworking ants who designed it, but terrible for the fun loving grasshoppers that were meant to pay attention to it. The Young Ant recruited grasshoppers for a deliberative session where participants looked at the evidence, spoke to experts and discussed at length. At one point the Boastful Grasshopper stood up and exclaimed “ I’ve just realized that if we don’t start saving we won’t be have the strength to sing throughout the year!”. The Judgmental Ant muttered something about thick headed grasshoppers under his breath but knew better than to say such things with the Young Ant around.
A number of grasshoppers were recruited as peer trainers. The Boastful Grasshopper turned out to be a masterful influencer. He came up with the new slogan “Saving means singing all year round!”. Over the course of the summer real changes began to be made.
Six months later the ground was covered by snow, but the grasshoppers had both food and warmth. The Boastful Grasshopper sat in front of the fire with an admiring group of young Grasshoppers. “Well all this saving thing was my idea to begin with –so you have me to thank for the fact that you’re all warm now” he said. The Judgmental Ant was about to object but the Young Ant cut him off. “Best to let contented grasshopper lie” She said with a wink.
In many cases the Government wants citizens to change their behaviour. Top down approaches, such as campaigns, often fail to actually change behaviour. There are a number of new approaches which can be used, including observational research, co-production, peer trainers and deliberative approaches. It is important to understand people’s values and to not assume that the incentives that work for one group can automatically be transferred to another (see the work on values modes for example).
I hope you enjoyed this third installment of Facilitation fables. Next week I’ll look at how facilitation could have changed the outcome of another classic fable. It will be the last Facilitation Fable before we launch our new pamphlet on the 26th. Let me know which your favourite fable is –I might include it in future posts!
In the lead up to the launch of Involve and the RSA’s new pamphlet ‘From Fairy tale to Reality’ Edward Andersson is writing ‘Facilitation Fables’ each Friday in February. In this second installment he looks at the fable variously known as ‘The Mice in Council’, ‘The Cat and the Bell’ or ‘Belling the Cat’.
‘The Mice in Council’ by Gustave Doré -Courtesy of Wiki commons
‘The Mice in Council’ is an interesting fable. I find that its moral lesson runs counter to the ideas of citizen led innovation; so I thought I’d have a go a rewriting it. Here is the fable in its original form:
The Mice in Council
Once upon a time all the Mice met together in Council, and discussed the best means of securing themselves against the attacks of the cat. After several suggestions had been debated, a Mouse of some standing and experience got up and said, “I think I have hit upon a plan which will ensure our safety in the future, provided you approve and carry it out. It is that we should fasten a bell round the neck of our enemy the cat, which will by its tinkling warn us of her approach.” This proposal was warmly applauded, and it had been already decided to adopt it, when an old Mouse got upon his feet and said, “I agree with you all that the plan before us is an admirable one: but may I ask who is going to bell the cat?”
Read straight this fable seems to say ‘there’s no point in suggesting new ideas –it won’t work anyway’. I think that we have all met this attitude in meetings where phrases such as ‘It’ll never work’, ‘we tried that once’ and ‘Data protection/health and safety/ prohibits it’ are often uttered. Of course it is very important to realistically assess proposed ideas; but people often use phrases like this to close down discussions. There are ample examples of how innovation is possible. So how might we rewrite the fable?
When the old Mouse finished talking the room became quiet. A sense of distress descended on the assembled Mice –was the Cat an inescapable fact of life? Another Mouse stood up and spoke. “Our friend has a point –belling the cat will be difficult. Let’s break into small groups and discuss how we can bell the cat without risking our lives? Remember –there are no stupid ideas.” “There are lots of stupid ideas” muttered the Old Mouse under his breath, but the room had already erupted into a hive of activity and no one paid him much attention. Over the next few days tech savvy Mice set up a crowd sourcing website, some Mice organised an unconference (called ‘Bell the Cat Camp’) and a wealthy Mouse made a large cheese reward available to anyone who came up with a workable solution as part of a challenge prize. The sceptical Old Mouse was asked to act as a critical friend of the process, pointing out any overlooked flaws in the suggested ideas. This was a role he took to with gusto. A wide array of ideas were suggested –using a long stick, firing the bell at the cat using a sling shot, attaching the bell to the cat with Velcro or glue, or tricking the cat to ingest the bell. In the end one Mouse stood up and asked “Do we even need to use a Bell? Why don’t we just use a long stick to glue a GPS chip to the Cat’s collar and track it using that?” And that is what the Mice did; although the Old Mouse lamented that a Bell would have been much better solution than any newfangled chip.
Many of the problems we face as a society seem insurmountable. However over the past decades we have developed numerous tools that can help us solve intractable problems. Examples include Challenge Prizes, Unconferences, Open Space meetings, Crowd Sourcing and Appreciative Inquiry. The attitude that nothing will work paralyses groups. Reducing air pollution, adjusting to an ageing population and dealing with the rise in chronic health conditions are similar to Belling the Cat –difficult but definitely not impossible.
In the third instalment of Facilitation fables I will look at behaviour change and experiential learning. Let me know which your favourite fable is –I might include it!
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.