Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Stone Soup - A Tale of Design Thinking... almost


Robert Moser's fable of Stone Soup has been told at least as far back as 1808, when it was published in The European Magazine and London Review as The Recipe for Stone Soup. Fundamentally, it's a tale about creative problem solving.

The story goes that a weary traveler arrives at a small village, just north of the border town of Schauffhausen, Switzerland.* Coming into town, the traveller sees a woman, sitting at a spinning wheel at the door of her cottage, singing as she spins. The traveller approaches, starts a conversation and asks the woman if she has any fire. Thus starts a classic tale of persuasion, collaboration and resource management, since retold to thousands of young and old for generations.

Although enlarged and embellished since it's first telling, the core message is the same; How do you persuade others to cooperate, overcome their fears and use limited available resources to create something valuable, seemingly out of nothing?

San Antonio Potters Guild Empty Bowls

The story illustrates several aspects of Design Thinking and the nature of creativity; Showing what can happen when people collaborate, do a bit of unplanned brainstorming and some forced association. It also shows the power of optimism and storytelling in persuading people to a common point of view and the benefit of the rapid built/test cycle.

Illustration by Marcia Brown
In Marcia Brown's re-telling, the role of the traveller is filled by three soldiers and the town has been ravaged by war, so the townsfolk are feeling both resource poor and suspicious. The soldier's first attempts to get some relief are an utter failure.  Partly because it's a one sided transaction, relying on the charity of already war-torn townsfolk.

What happens next isn't too different from what many stage magicians do; The soldiers pull the audience into the act by asking for something of little value and playing on the citizen's curiosity about something unusual, contradictory, and new; stone soup.

But, let's just pick up the story;

Image by Carl Sommer
Three soldiers trudged down a road in a strange country. They were on their way home from the wars. Besides being tired, they were hungry. In fact, they had eaten nothing for two days.

"How I would like a good dinner tonight,” said the first.
“And a bed to sleep in,” said the second.
“But all that is impossible,” said the third. “We must march on.” (Negative Thinking!)

On they marched. Suddenly, ahead of them they saw the lights of a village.
“Maybe we’ll find a bite to eat there,” said the first.
“And a loft to sleep in,” said the second.
No harm in asking,” said the third. (A bit of optimism there.)

Image by John Shelley
Now, the peasants of that place feared strangers. When they heard that three soldiers were coming down the road, they talked among themselves. (Fearful Collaboration)

Ekherd Theater Company
“Here come three soldiers. Soldiers are always hungry. But we have little enough for ourselves.” And they hurried to hide their food. (Possibly invalid assumptions, "scarcity" mind set.)

They pushed the sacks of barley under the hay in the lofts. They lowered buckets of milk down the wells. They spread old quilts over the carrot bins. They hid their cabbages and potatoes under the beds. They hung their meat in the cellars. (Dishonest and withholding)

They hid all they had to eat. Then – they waited.

The soldiers stopped first at the house of Paul and Francoise.

“Good evening to you,” they said. “Could you spare a bit of food for three hungry soldiers?”
(Not starting with empathy for Paul and Francoise.) 

“We have had no food for ourselves for three days,” said Paul. Francoise made a sad face. “It has been a poor harvest.” (Not starting with empathy for the soldiers.) 

The three soldiers went on the house of Albert and Louise. “Could you spare a bit of food? And have you some corner where we could sleep for the night?” (Again...)

“Oh no,” said Albert. “We gave all we could spare to soldiers who came before you.” (Again...)

“Our beds are full,” said Louise.  (Again...)

At Vincent and Marie’s the answer was the same. It had been a poor harvest and all the grain must be kept for seed. (Are we seeing the pattern here?)

So it went all through the village. Not a peasant had any food to give away. They all had good reasons. One family had use the grain for feed. Another had an old sick father to care for. All had too many mouths to fill. (Complete disconnect over Points of View, faulty information and assumptions all around - what a mess!)

The villagers stood in the street and sighed. The looked as hungry as they could.

The three soldiers talked together. (Collaboration!)

Then the first soldier called out, “Good people!” (Ah!, a bit of optimism.) The peasants drew near.

“We are three hungry soldiers in a strange land. We have asked you for food and you have no food. Well then, we’ll have to make stone soup.” (Start with the simple truth and propose a wacky solution.)

The peasants stared.

Stone soup? That would be something to know about.

“First, we’ll need a large iron pot,” the soldiers said. (The start of the build/test cycle.)

The peasants brought the largest pot they could find. How else to cook enough?

“That's none too large,” said the soldiers. “But it will do. And now, water to fill it and a fire to heat it.”

Image by Lauren Gallegos
It took many buckets of water to fill the pot. A fire was built on the village square and the pot was set to boil.

“And now, if you please, three round, smooth stones.”

Those were easy enough to find. (Quick prototype with easily available materials and processes.)

The peasants’ eyes grew round as they watched the soldiers drop the stones into the pot.

Image by Necdet Yilmaz

“Any soup needs salt and pepper,” said the soldiers, as they began to stir.

Children ran to fetch salt and pepper.

“Stones like these generally make good soup. But oh, if there were carrots, it would be much better.”

“Why, I think I have a carrot or two,” said Francoise, and off she ran.
Image by Sue Cornelison
She came back with her apron full of carrots from the bin beneath the red quilt.
(Franciose is on board and contributing, even if she hasn't caught the full vision yet.)

“A good stone soup should have cabbage,” said the soldiers as they sliced the carrots into the pot. “But no use asking for what you don't have.” (Build on the existing idea, and encourage more from the group.)

“I think I could find a cabbage somewhere,” said Marie and she hurried home. Back she came with three cabbages from the cupboard under the bed. (Maria is getting the idea...)

Image by Johanna van der Sterre
“If we only had a bit of beef and a few potatoes, this soup would be good enough for a rich man's table.” (Looking for better and better outcomes...)

The peasants thought that over. They remembered their potatoes and the sides of beef hanging in the cellars. They ran to fetch them. (Now they're cooking!)

A rich man's soup – and all from a few stones. It seemed like magic!

Image by Lydia Halverson
“Ah,” sighed the soldiers as they stirred in the beef and potatoes, “if we only had a little barley and a cup of milk! This would would be fit for the king himself. Indeed he asked for just such a soup when last he dined with us.” (Storytelling of past and future success.)

The peasants looked at each other. The soldiers had entertained the king! Well!

“But – no use asking for what you don’t have,” the soldiers signed. (Keep pulling...)

The peasants brought their barley from the lofts, they brought their milk from the wells. The soldiers stirred the barley and milk into the steaming broth while the peasants stared.

Image by Michael Hays
At last the soup was ready.

“All of you shall taste,” the soldiers said. “But first a table must be set.” (Keep the group thinking and engaged!)

Great tables were placed in the square. And all around were lighted torches.

Such a soup! How good it smelled! Truly fit for a king.

But then the peasants asked themselves, “Would not such a soup require bread – and a roast – and cider?” Soon a banquet was spread and everyone sat down to eat.

Image by Marcia Brown

Never had there been such a feast. Never had the peasants tasted such soup.

And fancy, made from stones!

Where are these Design Thinking traits found in the story? Are there any missing?

* Possibly Merishausen or Thayngen.

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