Published on February 1, 2013

Facilitation Fables – part 1

By Edward Andersson

Edward Andersson is European Associate for Involve and an established expert on methods of participatory decision making. He set up – one of Europe’s leading public engagement sites, and has advised a number of organisations on public engagement strategies, including the Home Office, the European Commission, the OECD, WHO Europe, UNDP Turkey and numerous Local Authorities and Health Trusts.

The crow and the pitcherEach Friday in February I’ll be writing ‘Facilitation Fables’. At the end of February Involve will launch a new pamphlet, in collaboration with the RSA, looking at the common false myths around engagement. It has been a really enjoyable pamphlet to research and write and so I thought I’d do something fun to celebrate.

As part of the research for our new pamphlet I spent time looking at myths, legends and fables. I found a treasure trove of fables – all with moral messages. Some of them – like the tortoise and the hare – are familiar to most of us, whereas others are less well known.

These fables are very old, and as a result the degree to which the moral message still rings true differs. I was surprised to find how many of the fables have messages which are powerful for advocates of participation and open government. In this instalment I’ll mention three fables which I think highlight vital learning for government and citizens alike and which encapsulate what Involve is all about. Despite being thousands of years old they are still relevant. In coming instalments I’ll attempt to rewrite other fables where facilitation and engagement could have led to other outcomes.

Moral 1: Those in power need the help of (seemingly) insignificant individuals to overcome challenges

The Lion and the Mouse

A Lion asleep in his lair was waked up by a Mouse running over his face. Losing his temper he seized it with his paw and was about to kill it. The Mouse, terrified, piteously entreated him to spare its life. “Please let me go,” it cried, “and one day I will repay you for your kindness.” The idea of so insignificant a creature ever being able to do anything for him amused the Lion so much that he laughed aloud, and good-humouredly let it go. But the Mouse’s chance came, after all. One day the Lion got entangled in a net which had been spread for game by some hunters, and the Mouse heard and recognised his roars of anger and ran to the spot. Without more ado it set to work to gnaw the ropes with its teeth, and succeeded before long in setting the Lion free. “There!” said the Mouse, “you laughed at me when I promised I would repay you: but now you see, even a Mouse can help a Lion.”

Moral 2: When faced with challenges “ordinary” citizens are able to come up with ingenious solutions which may have eluded experts.

The Crow and the Pitcher

A thirsty Crow found a Pitcher with some water in it, but so little was there that, try as she might, she could not reach it with her beak, and it seemed as though she would die of thirst within sight of the remedy. At last she hit upon a clever plan. She began dropping pebbles into the Pitcher, and with each pebble the water rose a little higher until at last it reached the brim, and the knowing bird was enabled to quench her thirst.

Moral 3: When trying to convince citizens and stakeholders to change their behaviour the old “command and control” approach is less effective than one which builds on positive incentives and encouragement.

The North Wind and the Sun

A dispute arose between the North Wind and the Sun, each claiming that he was stronger than the other. At last they agreed to try their powers upon a traveller, to see which could soonest strip him of his cloak. The North Wind had the first try; and, gathering up all his force for the attack, he came whirling furiously down upon the man, and caught up his cloak as though he would wrest it from him by one single effort: but the harder he blew, the more closely the man wrapped it round himself. Then came the turn of the Sun. At first he beamed gently upon the traveller, who soon unclasped his cloak and walked on with it hanging loosely about his shoulders: then he shone forth in his full strength, and the man, before he had gone many steps, was glad to throw his cloak right off and complete his journey more lightly clad.

I hope you enjoyed this first instalment of Facilitation fables. Next week I’ll look at how facilitation could have changed the outcome of some classic fables. Let me know which your favourite fable is – I might include it!

Picture credit: Vernon Jones

5 Responses to “Facilitation Fables – part 1”

  1. February 2, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Hi Edward

    These are great, and I look forward to the publication of the pamphlet.

    Reading your post bought to mind some stories I came across recently when looking for interesting reading on systems. Phil Ramsey has written stories about Billibonk the elephant and his friends, specifically to encourage critical and systems thinking. Here’s a review of the first book:

    I haven’t read that particular story, but I’ve read the second book and thoroughly enjoyed it, and just loved the way it is written to help the reader think and reflect.

    I don’t have a response to your question of a favourite fable, however having watched this TED Talk recently: I wonder what facilitation skills, as well as collaboration skills, we could ascribe to Dorothy.

    I’m looking forward to more of your Facilitation Fables on Fridays 🙂

    • Edward Andersson
      February 4, 2013 at 10:39 am

      Hi Lorna,

      Thank you so much for sharing these examples. A fable to encourage learning around systems thinking sounds like something I should look at. I’m also always looking for good children’s books to buy my nieces, so taking a closer look at Billibonk the Elephant makes a lot of sense.

      The Wizard of Oz is an interesting case -keeping the Scare crow, Lion and Tin Man moving in the same direction, despite some significant character flaws, must have required a good grasp of facilitation.

      Not wishing to spoil the surprise, but I can let on that this week’s fable will feature mice…


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