Head-smashed-in buffalo jump


Yes, you read right. Head-smashed-in buffalo jump.


The cliffs themselves

For 6,000 years in North America the Blackfoot tribe ate, dressed and made their homes with bison that fell to their deaths at some cliffs called Head-smashed-in Buffalo jump

The bison were not accident prone, they were incited off the cliffs by the Blackfoot tribe that created a stampede by dressing in furs and imitating wolves and coyotes and funneling the bison stampede towards the cliffs through artificial “drive-lanes”made from hundreds of stone cairns.
The bison would fall off the cliffs, driven by the weight of the stampede behind them, and either die or be crippled in the fall, ready to be butchered by the waiting people below.

The location of the buffalo-jump had nearby fresh water, to process the hides, and it helped the people through the winter with food, clothing, tents. All without horses or guns.

They were able to do something so valuable that it ensured survival, without the technology of horses to ride or rifles to shoot bison with. For 6,000 years. 

It was called Head-smashed-in because a young man wanted to see what it was like but got too close to the action and was found under a pile of bison with, yes, his head smashed in.

So, what’s this got to do with systems thinking then?
I bet you can understand and visualise it. The name of the place, the idea of hundreds of bison stampeding towards a cliff, then the big pile of hundreds of bison carcasses being dragged away to be turned into food and clothes. Simple and real. Simple because real.

Today I spent hours reading and re-reading a Big Strategy for improving something or another. There were about 11 pages used to justify why this strategy was sound. Data hurled at the reader like getting a faceful of gravel, enough to hurt and confuse rather than enlighten in any way. Lots of Key Themes being underpinned, and strategic contexts being delivered in a clear policy setting. It is complete drivel. The Blackfoot tribe would have starved if they’d have gone about their survival like this.

Turning towards the action-plan at the back (why are plans always action-plans?) it was much shorter as it was about what they were actually going to do. More intelligible but still clear as mud compared with chasing buffalo off a cliff.

But ThinkPurpose,” I hear them cry, “I think you’ll find it’s a lot harder to do XYZ in a multi-disciplinary partnership approach than kill some bison” Is what would be said. This is because they are hiding something. It is always easier to hide something in a pile of words, especially a big pile of words. What is this thing they are hiding?

A complete lack of purpose.


Some swords, yesterday

When you know the what and why, you don’t have to hide it. It’s clear as the sky raining bison down on you. When there’s nothing there, then you’ve got to stick something in to take up some space, and words are ideal for that. Hiding a lack of purpose behind large amounts of words is a skill. Not a useful skill, but still a skill. It requires the ability to link to other documents that similarly have no real purpose.

Like those Morris dancers that interlock swords into a circle, where each sword rests on the others around it, making a circle that can only exist if the swords link to each other. Take one out and they all fall down. Imagine the benefit obtained from linking documents to other documents.  None at all, is the cruel but honest answer, and yet still they try. I have an email in my inbox at the moment asking me to look at linking a document with another. I have no idea what this means.

I bet the Blackfoot didn’t employ Policy Officers for linking strategic underpinnings to emerging Key Deliverables, and yet they survived 6,000 harsh winters using this cliff. How much longer has UK Local Government got? And will Policy Officers be any use in prolonging it’s survival?

I hope so as I’m one. But if they do have anything to offer at all, it’s not their skill at document wrangling.  It is impossible for the vast majority of them that I have spoken with to see this as a problem. The sound of keyboard rattling fills the air in my office. “What, stop banging out the Key Themes? But what would you replace it with?

Remember that young man who was killed? Where did he go, and why? He went to the gemba, the work. Where the bison was falling. Perhaps he was an idiot, but he wanted to see what was happening for himself. If policy officers have any usefulness whatsoever, it has to start there. Moving away from documents and towards where the work is, a few may get their head crushed by the startling reality of it all, but it is better than the alternative of staying in document-land. Even bison couldn’t be fooled by that.

This entry was posted in clarity of purpose, command and control, public sector, purpose, systems thinking, thinking and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Head-smashed-in buffalo jump

  1. Alan Stanton says:

    By coincidence, just before I read your post, I reread an article by John Berger about his visit to the cave paintings at Chauvet. ( http://bit.ly/1hAVLnm.) Berger imagines the people who made the paintings as:
    “… born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon were more animals”. They also survived by understanding how to kill eat and use these animals. And to avoid being hunted and killed by them. They understood the reality of how their everyday “work” worked.

    Now a different scene from “document land” and more links. Mike Davis “Planet of Slums” draws an example from Jeremy Seabrook’s “In the Cities of the South”. Penang Fishing communities, hew rote, who “had always symbiotically with the sea” … “had their homes cut off from the sea by a new highway, their fishing grounds polluted by urban waste, the neighbouring hillsides deforested to build apartment blocks”.

    Document land can and should make a contribution to understanding incredible pace of the forces of change; and helping local or national governments understand it it too. Assisting them in developing policies in the interests of people who live in the areas governed.

    So my criticism of policy officers is not about documents in themselves. And certainly not the desire to put together the links between different aspects of the “startling reality of it all”. It’s that Council and consultant’s documents I read seem to have poor connections with the different bits of reality “out there”. They then feed this tripe to politicians who make decisions.

    Rarely is anyone allowed to tell the truth. Especially if the truth is largely that of failure or partial failure. Another link.
    “For any institution, the flow of information is akin to the activity of a central nervous system: the organization’s effectiveness depends on it. An organization’s capacity to compete, solve problems, innovate, meet challenges, and achieve goals—its intelligence, if you will—varies to the degree that the flow of information remains healthy. That is particularly true when the information in question consists of crucial but hard-to-take facts, the information that leaders may bristle at hearing—and that subordinates too often, and understandably, play down, disguise, or ignore. For information to flow freely within an institution, followers must feel free to speak openly, and leaders must welcome such openness.”
    Creating a Transparent Culture Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman & Patricia Ward Biederman


  2. ThinkPurpose says:

    See, this is what I want from comments, going from detail to theory with full references for further reading. Thanks Mr Stanton!


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