The Parable of the River
Wednesday, 6 May 2015
There is an oft-told parable – popularised in the 1930s by social reformer and community organiser Saul Alinksy - about a group of campers on a river bank who are just settling down for the evening when one of them sees a baby in the water. He immediately dives in, braving the fierce current, and rescues the infant. But as he climbs ashore, one of the other campers spots another baby in the river in need of help. Then another. And another. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of babies, the campers grab any passer-by they can to help them.
Before long, the river is filled with desperate babies, and more and more rescuers are required to assist the campers. Unfortunately, not all the babies can be saved. And, tragically, some of the brave rescuers occasionally drown. But they manage to mould themselves into an efficient life-saving organisation and, over time, an entire infrastructure develops to support their efforts; hospitals, schools, foster carers, social services, trauma and victim support services, life saving trainers, swimming schools etc.
At this point one of the rescuers starts walking upstream.
‘Where are you going?’ the others ask, disconcerted, ‘We need you here! Look how busy we are!’
The rescuer replies: ‘You carry on here … I’m going upstream to find the bugger who keeps chucking all these babies in the river.’
This is a great little story to tell when you're trying to explain the problem solving process. To do it right, you have to attack in two waves; the first is a response that shows that you're doing something. It's rescuing the babies. In policing, this would be something like swamping an area with cops to reduce incidences of a crime. But, of course, this isn't sustainable as those cops will be needed elsewhere eventually. And, sure as eggs is eggs, once the extra cops are gone, the problem pops right up again. That's where the second wave comes in.
While the first wave is doing its thing, the second wave is busy researching and analysing, and working out what the underlying causes of the problem are. Then, the second wave starts putting things in place to undermine the problem so that, when the frst wave is removed, the problem cannot return.
The second wave means finding the baby chucker and making sure he chucks no more.
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