The Parable of the Porpoise

The following story/parable outlines some potential parameters of a new paradigm for leadership and management. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson spent a number of years studying the communication patterns of dolphins and porpoises. He reports that, in order to supplement their scientific studies, the research center he was involved with often put on shows for live audiences using these animal sometimes as often as three times a day. The researchers decided to demonstrate to the audience the process of how they train a porpoises to do a trick. A porpoise would be led from a holding tank into the performing tank in front of the audience. The trainer would wait until the porpoise performed some conspicuous behavior (conspicuous to humans, that is) – say, lifting its head out of the water in a certain way. The trainer would then blow a whistle and give the porpoise a fish. The trainer would then wait until the porpoise eventually repeated the behavior, blow the whistle again and give it a fish. Soon the porpoise had learned what to do to get the fish and lifted its head quite often, providing a successful demonstration of its ability to learn.

A couple of hours later, however, the porpoise was brought back to the exhibition tank for a second show. Naturally, it began lifting its head out of the water as it did in the first show, and waited for the expected whistle and fish. The trainer, however, didn’t want the porpoise to do the same old trick, but to demonstrate to the audience how the porpoise learns a new one. After spending roughly two-thirds of the show repeating the old trick over and aver, the porpoise finally became frustrated and flipped its tail at the trainer in disgust. The trainer immediately blew the whistle and threw a fish into the tank. The surprised and somewhat confused porpoise cautiously flipped its tail again, and again got the whistle and the fish. Soon it was merrily flipping its tail, successfully demonstrating again its ability to learn and was returned to its home tank.

At the third session, after being led to the exhibition tank, the porpoise began dutifully flipping its tail as it had learned in the previous section. However, since the trainer wanted it to learn something new, it was not rewarded. Once more, for roughly two thirds of the training session the porpoise continually repeated the head lift and tail flip with growing frustration, until finally, out of exasperation, it did something different, such as spinning itself around. The trainer immediately blew the whistle and gave the porpoise a fish. Alter some time it successfully learned to spin itself for the audience and was led back to its home tank.

For fourteen straight shows the porpoise repeated this pattern – the first two thirds of the show was spent in futile repetitions of the behavior that had been reinforced in the previous shows until, seemingly by “accident”, it engaged in a new piece of conspicuous behavior and was able to complete the training demonstration successfully.

With each show, however, the porpoise became increasingly disturbed and frustrated at being “wrong” and the trainer found it necessary to break the rules of the training context and periodically give the porpoise “unearned fish” in order to preserve his or her relationship with the porpoise. If the porpoise became too frustrated with the trainer it would refuse to cooperate at all with him or her, which would create a severe setback to the research as well as to the shows.

Finally, in between the fourteenth and fifteenth session, the porpoise would seem to become almost wild with excitement, as if it had suddenly discovered a gold mine. And when it was led into the exhibition tank for the fifteenth show it put on an elaborate performance including many completely original behaving. One animal even exhibited eight behaviors, which had never before been observed in it’s species.

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