Voices of the Unheard

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
John Thomas
IBM Research Hawthorne

Much 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 true if the relevant perspective is that of a stakeholder in the outcome.


Context: 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 fully 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. This process is often exacerbated because those building the



* 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.

The idea for this pattern comes from a Native American story transcribed by Paula Underwood (2002) entitled, "Who Speaks for Wolf?"

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.

Shortly thereafter, it became clear that a mistake had been made. The new location was in the middle of the wolves’ breeding ground. 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 a 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.”

Much of the failure of "process re-engineering" can be attributed to the fact that "models" of the "as 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 the work was done. A "should be" process was designed to be a more efficient version of the "as is" process and then implementation was pushed down on workers. However, since the original "as 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.

As a variant of this, a prototype creativity tool has been created. The idea is to have a "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.


Solution: Provide ways to remind people of stakeholders who are not present. These could be procedural (certain Native Americans always ask, "Who Speaks for Wolf" to remind them) or visual (e.g.,diagrams, lists) or auditory (e.g., songs). Related Patterns suggest methods for finding stakeholders and insuring their timely input.

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