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John Charles Thomas, Problem Solving International
San Diego, PPDD Workshop, 5/25/2017
Building Common Ground in a Wildly Webbed World:
A Pattern Language Approach
"In addition to digital divides due to differences in access and accessibility,
we now face another divide in terms of basic views of reality.
Convincing seldom works; manipulation can work but is unethical.
Are there socio-technical patterns that can
serve as respectful and productive guides to problem solving
for people with common problems but different world-views?
What can we learn from what has worked to bridge other
digital divides when applied to this new
The Doubled Down Digital Divisive Divide
❖ Society is much more
differentiated than when
language and customs evolved.
❖ Society is in a hurry even
though ﬁnding common
ground is even harder.
❖ Hence, people often begin by
focusing on differences in
order to “resolve” things
We have more opportunities for
communication than ever before; and more
❖ Begin with ﬁnding fundamental common ground:
❖ Physical Tasks Requiring Many Hands
Pattern: Greater Gathering
❖ In companies (or societies), people naturally
differentiate and come to have “sub-communities”
❖ On periodic or special occasions such as holidays,
weddings, graduations, post-competition dinners, come
together in a greater gathering.
❖ Examples: Company picnic, Mardi Gras, Caroling, etc.
❖ Concept initiated by Christopher Alexander for Architecture and City Planning
❖ A “Pattern” (as used here) refers to the named general solution to a recurring problem.
❖ (Complete) “Patterns” include a title suggesting solution, statement of the problem,
opposing forces, an outline of a solution, links to other patterns, diagram, evocative picture,
❖ A “Pattern Language” is a network of such Patterns that cover at least a substantial portion
of the problems commonly encountered in a domain
❖ Since adopted to many domains; e.g.,
❖ Object-Oriented Programming
❖ Organizational Change
❖ Human-Computer Interaction/User Experience
Some Socio-Technical Patterns
Relevant to the “Digital Divide”
❖ “Who Speaks for Wolf?”
❖ Reality Check
❖ Small Successes Early
❖ Bohm Dialogue
❖ Elicit from Cultural Diversity
❖ Narrative Insight Method
❖ Greater Gathering
❖ Begin at Common Roots
❖ Who Speaks for Wolf?
❖ Based on Native American Story.
❖ Encourages that all stakeholders
& perspectives be consulted early.
❖ NYNEX counter-example: Voice
Intercept Project (ﬁrst use of
speech recognition in public
❖ Initially, Central Ofﬁce
Managers not consulted.
❖ Copied Format from AT&T
❖ Lawyers didn’t like that…
Thomas, J.C., Lee, A., & Danis, C (2002). “Who Speaks for Wolf?”
IBM Research Report, RC-22644. Yorktown Heights, NY: IBM Corporation.
Who Speaks for Wolf?
*Synonyms: Engage all the Stakeholders
* Abstract: A lot of 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
often true if the relevant perspective is that of a stakeholder in the outcome. Make sure that every relevant stakeholder’s perspective is brought to
* Problem: Problem solving or design that proceeds down the wrong path can be costly or impossible to correct later. As the inconvenience and
cost of a major change in direction mount, cognitive dissonance makes it somewhat likely that the new information will be ignored or devalued so
that continuance along the wrong path is likely.
* 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 fulling 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.
Who Speaks for Wolf?
+ 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. Once a wrong path is
chosen, both social forces and individual cognitive dissonance make it difﬁcult to begin over, change direction or retrace steps.
+ Provide automated reminding of stakeholders who are not present. These could be procedural (certain Native Americans always ask, "Who
Speaks for Wolf" to remind them) or visual or auditory with technological support.
+ In “A behavioral analysis of the Hobbit-Orcs problem”, people ﬁnd it difﬁcult to solve a simple puzzle because it appears that they must “undo”
progress that has already been made.
+ As a positive case, some groups make it a practice to “check in” at the beginning of any meeting to see whether any group members have an
issue that they would like to have discussed. In “User Centered Design”, and “Contextual Design” methodologies, an attempt is made to get input
from the intended users of the system early on in the design process.
Who Speaks for Wolf?
* Resulting Context:
When every stakeholder’s views are taken into account, the solution will be improved in quality and in addition, there will be less resistance to
implementing the solution.
* Rationale & Elaboration:
Much of the failure of "process re-engineering" can be attributed to the fact that "models" of the "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 they were done. A "should be" process was designed to be a more efﬁcient version of the "is" process and then implementation was pushed
down on workers. However, since the original "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
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.
* Related Patterns:
Radical Co-location (Provided all stakeholders are present in the radical co-location, this tends to insure that their input will be given at
* Known Uses:
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.
❖ Reality Check
❖ Fast programmers are good
programmers. If you measure
KLOCs, you will get KLOCs.
❖ NYNEX: Math models for
growth in phone lines failed to
account for faxes & then
Internet. Lost 10’s of millions of
❖ Oil Company’s math models
showed growth in demand. It
took six years to revise models in
1970’s “energy crisis.” Lost 10’s
of billions of dollars.
❖ Putting on wet greens at The
Masters; the down-side of skill:
self-reinforcement occurs before
the reality check.
❖ Small Successes Early
Some problems require large teams of relative strangers to work together cooperatively in order to solve the overall problem. Yet,
people generally take time to learn to trust one another as well as to learn another's strengths and weaknesses and preferred
styles. Plunging a large group of strangers immediately into a complex task often results in non-productive jockeying for
position, failure, blaming, ﬁnger-pointing, etc. Therefore, insure that the team or community ﬁrst undertakes a task that is likely
to bring some small success before engaging in a complex effort.
A complex undertaking requires the interaction of many people with various backgrounds, skills, and temperaments. Often,
whether in an industrial setting or a community building effort, many of these people have not worked together before. The
group wants to get started and wants to be successful. Although their diversity is a potential source of strength, at ﬁrst, there is
likely to be natural confusion about how to proceed because people will have different experiences about the best way to
organize and proceed. We don’t expect children to be instant experts. Why should we expect new groups to be?
+ Problems are often too complex for all aspects to be addressed simultaneously.
+ If a problem is understood, it is logically better to deal with the hardest constraints ﬁrst.
+ The structure of complex problems often becomes more clear as one tries to solve the problem.
+ A part of any complex problem solving process requiring more than one person is the interaction and relationship among the
+ People in a new team need to learn about each other's skills, working styles, and trustworthiness.
+ When people get frustrated because of non-success, they tend to blame each other.
+ As people work toward a goal, the goal tends to become viewed as more valuable and therefore people are willing to work
harder to reach it.
Small Successes Early
Therefore, when bringing new teams or organizations together, it is useful to begin with a small success. In this way, people begin to learn about each other and trust each other.
People learn more about the nature of the problem domain. This makes tackling more difﬁcult problems later relatively easier.
At the kick-off to a new software development project, rather than having the people be invited to "attend" an event that is "thrown" for them, encourage them to organize a party,
cook-out, pot-luck, song-fest, or storytelling event among themselves. In the process of organizing and carrying out this activity, they will learn about each other's styles, learn
about the trustworthiness of others, and be encouraged by having a success.
Alternatively, the team might simply work on an aspect of the problem to be solved, provided it is something fairly clear that will result in "success" quickly. For instance, the
team might initially work proﬁtably on a short presentation about the project, a poster, or a scenario but not immediately jump into working on a systems design or a requirements
As people experience team success, they tend to view the others in the team more positively. Teamwork is often hard under the best of circumstances. In highly complex
problems, when people come together from different cultures, backgrounds, or agendas, it often becomes so difﬁcult as to seem impossible. Rather than having people
simultaneously attempt to solve a complex problem AND at the same time learn to work together as a team, it is often more effective to separate the otherwise tangled problems.
First, have the people solve a tractable problem where it is clear that they have a common agenda. A successful experience working together to solve that simple problem will
help people learn each other's styles, strengths, weaknesses and so on. With this knowledge and trust, they can now move on to try to solve more difﬁcult problems.
The human factors psychologist James Welford was called in as a consultant to deal with what appeared to be a very large age effect. People over 35 were having a tremendous
difﬁculty learning new hand weaves. The difﬁculty, as Welford discovered, was in two tangled problems. On the one hand, it was hard to see the actual threads and second, it was
hard to learn the patterns. What Welford did was introduce a short training segment with very large, quite visible cords. Once people had mastered that, they were transferred to
the much smaller production size. This eliminated the "age effect" and in fact, both older and younger people learned much more effectively and efﬁciently.
In similar fashion, we argue that trying to solve a complex problem with virtual strangers, especially when there is reason to believe there may be a difference in agendas, is a
"tangled problem." Untangling the getting to know people from the complex task will help insure ultimate success.
Some care should be given to the task and setting. The "small successes early" task should allow some degree of give and take, some opportunity for expressive, not just
instrumental communication. People should have the opportunity and space for doing something creative, for sharing stories, for physical interaction.
Inspired from examples in Peopleware.
❖ Bohm Dialogue
❖ David Bohm: quantum physicist who
became interested in human
❖ Rather than typical business meeting
in which one person talks and
everyone else tries to decide asap if
they are “pro” or “con” and then
begins rehearsing their support or
opposition speech, people ﬁrst listen
and then reﬂect before responding.
Response need not be pro or con;
could be question or observation.
❖ Group tries collectively to develop
shared meaning around a topic.
Work together to build meaning
❖ Narrative Insight Method
❖ Stories speak to the “edges” of human
❖ Suggest to group of 10-20 that stories naturally
emerge during talk about a problem.
❖ Provide refreshments/gifts up front.
❖ Divide into groups of 3-4.
❖ Have people share relevant stories.
❖ Each sub-group choses “best” story to share with
❖ Continue to talk for remainder of hour.
❖ Record each story.
❖ Ask people to send in any additional thoughts
on the subject later.
❖ This was used to develop “Valuable Patent Tool”
for IBM Research.
A group of people has been attempting to accomplish some task as effectively and efﬁciently as possible.
In order to do this, one common method is to breakdown a large, complex task into smaller, less complex tasks.
Often, those people working on a subtask naturally spend more time with others on that subtask than on other subtasks.
It naturally occurs in this context that since people spend a lot of time together, they may develop common interests
and also spend leisure time together as well.
Sharing common sub-goals, physical contexts, and leisure activities as well as working on the same subtasks
may eventually lead to an “in-group” feeling.
People in the “in-group” may begin to limit their learning because of a lack of diversity in perspective.
Furthermore, they may come to work so hard to solve their own sub-problem that they lose sight
of the larger problem and make sub-optimizing decisions.
· People working on a common problem often bond as well.
· People working on a common sub-problem often lose sight of the larger problem.
· Social sanctions can lead to a lack of diversity of perspectives.
· All people share certain basic drives.
· Shared special events help build social bonds.
· People enjoy novel experiences and viewpoints.
· An expectation of what happens (based on story and experience) can help mold what does happen.
All the sub-groups that need to cooperate in a larger group should get together periodically for a “Greater Gathering.”
This should be periodic and structured. Activities need to be formulated that help everyone visualize and experience common ground.
Eating, drinking, dancing, singing, athletic contests, and other physical activities should also be included
since these are experiences people will relate to and enjoy regardless of which sub-group they belong to or which sub-problem they are working on.
Company sponsored sporting events.
Boy Scout Jamborees.
Early IBM yearly 100 % club meetings.
Begin at Common Roots
❖ The “Family Tree” of humanity evolved
“together”for more than 4 billion years.
❖ Most of the “Family Tree” shares common
goals: staying alive, ﬁnding water &
❖ Much of the “Tree” shares love of family,
play, cooperation, competition,
❖ Rather than initially and immediately focus
on “understanding and resolving”
differences or ﬁnding compromises among
❖ Understand and celebrate common ground
ﬁrst; explore that and work together to
develop stories of other possible paths.
Develop ﬁction together.
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* Srivastava, S., Rajput, N, Dhanesha, K., Basson, S., and Thomas, J. (2013). Community-oriented spoken web browser for low literate users. CSCW, San Antonio,
* Pan, Y., Roedl, D., Blevis, E. and Thomas, J. (2012). Re-conceptualizing Fashion in Sustainable HCI. Designing Interactive Systems conference. New Castle, UK,
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