Published on February 15, 2013

Facilitation Fables –part 3

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_Ant_and_the_Grasshopper_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_19994To 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!


4 Responses to “Facilitation Fables –part 3”

  1. February 15, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    Nice story. And I hope those superior Ants learnt to love singing a little, so that the learning was two-way.

    • Edward Andersson
      February 15, 2013 at 5:59 pm

      Penny, I’m glad you liked it. The Ants learnt a thing or two as well. The fact that in the closing paragraph the two Ants are sitting around with the grasshoppers in front of a roaring fire is indicative of a shift in thinking. Previously they probably would have seen such behaviour as ‘unproductive’ and ‘time wastage’. The Young Ant subsequently went on to set up and lead a successful Ant choir. The Judgmental Ant penned a number of songs about the value of hard work. For some reason the former was more successful than the latter…

  2. February 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    Hi Edward
    I’m really enjoying these posts, I woke up yesterday and happily thought to myself ‘another Facilitation Fable will be posted today’ (I’m not joking – I was really looking forward to it).
    Once again you’ve reminded me of Billibonk (ref my comment on Fable number one). My copy of Billibonk and the Thorn Patch arrived today and it is just brilliant. It makes the same point that you do about how difficult we find it to think about the long term. There is a slightly different take which is around whole systems which the book draws out: ‘Often the problem you have today… had happened because of the “great idea” you had for solving the problem you had yesterday.’ And your ants remind me of the mice in the Billibonk stories – they allow different points of view to be voiced, and they observe and reflect on things. All of which is prompting me to wonder about facilitation processes and whole systems thinking. I presume that some of the approaches you mention, such as observational research and deliberative approaches surface relationships and so on which are part of systems.
    And I like the idea of the Ant Choir – is this one of theirs? ;o)

    • Edward Andersson
      February 18, 2013 at 10:24 am

      Hi Lorna,

      I’m glad you’re looking forward to the fables. Maybe when I’m done with fables I’ll move on to fairy tales? I love the Billibonk take on the problems caused by ‘great ideas’. Being half Australian introducing Cane Toads springs to mind… In terms of how facilitation and whole systems thinking intersect I guess that facilitated methods are tools and systems thinking is a way of thinking which helps decide what to do.
      Thanks for the Ant Choir video -very cute. Stay tuned for this week’s installment -which doesn’t feature insects.

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