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This is the first of many socio-technical “Patterns” in a socio-technical Pattern Language meant to encapsulate best practices for collaboration and coordination. The common “parts” of every Pattern are displayed below in bold. A brief discussion follows the Pattern.

Who Speaks for Wolf?

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on December 17, 2001

A shorter version is included in Liberating Voices by Douglas Schuler.

A longer version was published as an IBM Research Report, 2002.

Reviewed by <John C. Thomas> on <January 9, 2018>

Revised by <John C. Thomas> on <January 9, 2018>



Engage all the Stakeholders


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. Therefore, make sure that every relevant stakeholder’s perspective is brought to bear early.


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 likely that the new information will be ignored or devalued so that continuance along the wrong path is likely.


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.

The inspiration for this pattern comes from a Native American story transcribed into English by Paula Underwood.

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 to the new location.

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


  • 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 a way to remind everyone 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,” I discovered that 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.

In a negative case, we developed a system to help automate “intercept calls” for a telecommunications company. We tested the end users to make sure it was workable. When we went to install the system, however, we learned that the folks in charge of central offices, would not allow our software to be installed until we provided documentation in the same format that they were used to from AT&T. So, we redid all the documentation to put it into the AT&T format. At that point, our lawyers, however informed us that that format was “copyrighted” so we could not simply use it. In this case, although many stakeholders were consulted, we had left out two important constituencies. (Eventually, the system was deployed — the first in the US that incorporated speech recognition into an application on the Public Service Network.

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.


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 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.

Related Patterns: 

Radical Co-location (Provided all stakeholders are physically present in the radical co-location, this tends to insure that their input will be given at appropriate times).

Known Uses:

As a variant of this, a prototype creativity tool was been created at IBM Watson Research Center. The idea was to have a virtual “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. The original prototype consisted of simple animations. Today’s technology would allow one to develop a raft of chat-bots instead.


Thomas, J. C. (1974). An analysis of behavior in the hobbits-orcs problem. Cognitive Psychology, 6(2), 257-269.

Thomas, J.C. (1996). The long-term social implications of new information technology. In R. Dholakia, N. Mundorf, & N. Dholakia (Eds.), New Infotainment Technologies in the Home: Demand Side Perspectives. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Thomas, J.C., Lee, A., & Danis, C (2002). “Who Speaks for Wolf?” IBM Research Report, RC-22644. Yorktown Heights, NY: IBM Corporation.

Thomas, J.C. (2003), Social aspects of gerontechnology.  In Impact of technology on successful aging N. Charness & K. Warner Schaie (Eds.). New York: Springer.

Underwood, Paula. (1983). Who speaks for Wolf: A Native American Learning Story. Georgetown TX (now San Anselmo, CA): A Tribe of Two Press.



I have personally found this pattern to extremely useful in a variety of social and business situations. In some ways, it seems like “common sense” to get the input of everyone touched by a decision. But we live in a very “hurried” society as I earlier examined in the Blog Post “Too Much.” I’ve seen many projects hurried through design and development without taking a sufficient look at the possible implications for various stakeholders. There is currently what I consider a reasonable concern over what the impact of AI will be. But other technologies on the horizon such as biotechnology and nanotechnology also need to be thought about. As we examined in a whole series of blog posts in the fall of 2017, social media have had huge unintended (and negative) consequences.

I’ve also been involved in “cross-cultural issues” in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and in how HCI impacts people and societies in other cultures. Even relatively simple technologies like dishwashers, microwaves, and cars often have considerable unanticipated social consequences. It is not only the “fair” thing to involve everyone who will be seriously impacted; it will ultimately result in faster progress with less strife.

I’m very interested in other people’s experiences relevant to this Pattern.


“Turing’s Nightmares” – scenarios of possible AI futures.