Voices of the Unheard

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John Thomas
IBM Research Hawthorne

Despite the significant effort and thought that goes into decision making and design, bad decisions and designs are frequently conceived and implemented primarily because a critical and relevant perspective was not brought to bear. This is especially true if the missing perspective represents that of someone who holds a stake in the outcome.


Complex problems such as the construction of new social institutions or the design of multifaceted 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, user needs, extreme cases, and so on. The result is often a technical or social system that creates as many problems as it solves. This process is often exacerbated when those building the "solution" interact more intensely with each other than with those affected by the solution.


The forces at work in the situations requiring this pattern include:

* Gaps in requirements are most cheaply repaired early in development; for this reason, as well as the need to gain acceptance by all parties, all stakeholders must have a say throughout any development or change process. This is an ethical issue as well.
* It is logistically difficult to ensure that all stakeholder groups are represented at every meeting.
* 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 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 tribes members 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 a 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? 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 prevented this mistake had he been at our first council meeting." "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 performed 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 in which the input of all stakeholders was not taken into account. Of course, much of the history of the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans reflects a refusal to truly include 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 the design or decision until such a person, or better, "Wolf" himself 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?"


Provide ways to remind people of stakeholders who are not present. These methods could be procedural (certain Native Americans always ask, "Who speaks for Wolf"), visual (e.g.,diagrams, lists) or auditory (e.g., songs).

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Despite the significant effort that goes into decision making and design, bad decisions and designs are often made because a critical and relevant perspective was not heard. This is especially true if the perspective is that of a stakeholder. Remind people of voices that aren't present through procedures, diagrams, or, even, songs.

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Between the Bars -- Human Stories from Prison

Between the Bars is a new blogging platform geared specifically for the over 2 million Americans who are currently in prison. We enable prisoners to blog on paper by scanning their letters. We aim to provide a positive outlet for creativity, a tool to assist in the maintenance of social safety nets, and a means to promote non-criminal identities and personal expression. We hope to improve prisoner's lives, and help to reduce recidivism.

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