In the lead up to the launch of Involve and the RSA’s new pamphlet ‘From Fairy tale to Reality’ Edward Andersson is writing ‘Facilitation Fables’ each Friday in February. In this second installment he looks at the fable variously known as ‘The Mice in Council’, ‘The Cat and the Bell’ or ‘Belling the Cat’.

Group of mice with  abell
‘The Mice in Council’ by Gustave Doré -Courtesy of Wiki commons


‘The Mice in Council’ is an interesting fable. I find that its moral lesson runs counter to the ideas of citizen led innovation; so I thought I’d have a go a rewriting it. Here is the fable in its original form:

The Mice in Council

Once upon a time all the Mice met together in Council, and discussed the best means of securing themselves against the attacks of the cat. After several suggestions had been debated, a Mouse of some standing and experience got up and said, “I think I have hit upon a plan which will ensure our safety in the future, provided you approve and carry it out. It is that we should fasten a bell round the neck of our enemy the cat, which will by its tinkling warn us of her approach.” This proposal was warmly applauded, and it had been already decided to adopt it, when an old Mouse got upon his feet and said, “I agree with you all that the plan before us is an admirable one: but may I ask who is going to bell the cat?”

Read straight this fable seems to say ‘there’s no point in suggesting new ideas –it won’t work anyway’. I think that we have all met this attitude in meetings where phrases such as ‘It’ll never work’, ‘we tried that once’ and ‘Data protection/health and safety/ prohibits it’ are often uttered. Of course it is very important to realistically assess proposed ideas; but people often use phrases like this to close down discussions. There are ample examples of how innovation is possible. So how might we rewrite the fable?

When the old Mouse finished talking the room became quiet. A sense of distress descended on the assembled Mice –was the Cat an inescapable fact of life? Another Mouse stood up and spoke. “Our friend has a point –belling the cat will be difficult. Let’s break into small groups and discuss how we can bell the cat without risking our lives? Remember –there are no stupid ideas.”  “There are lots of stupid ideas” muttered the Old Mouse under his breath, but the room had already erupted into a hive of activity and no one paid him much attention. Over the next few days tech savvy Mice set up a crowd sourcing website, some Mice organised an unconference (called ‘Bell the Cat Camp’) and a wealthy Mouse made a large cheese reward available to anyone who came up with a workable solution as part of  a challenge prize. The sceptical Old Mouse was asked to act as a critical friend of the process, pointing out any overlooked flaws in the suggested ideas. This was a role he took to with gusto. A wide array of ideas were suggested –using a long stick, firing the bell at the cat using a sling shot, attaching the bell to the cat with Velcro or glue, or tricking the cat to ingest the bell. In the end one Mouse stood up and asked “Do we even need to use a Bell? Why don’t we just use a long stick to glue a GPS chip to the Cat’s collar and track it using that?” And that is what the Mice did; although the Old Mouse lamented that a Bell would have been much better solution than any newfangled chip.

Many of the problems we face as a society seem insurmountable. However over the past decades we have developed numerous tools that can help us solve intractable problems. Examples include Challenge Prizes, Unconferences, Open Space meetings, Crowd Sourcing and Appreciative Inquiry. The attitude that nothing will work paralyses groups. Reducing air pollution, adjusting to an ageing population and dealing with the rise in chronic health conditions are similar to Belling the Cat –difficult but definitely not impossible.

In the third instalment of Facilitation fables I will look at behaviour change and experiential learning. Let me know which your favourite fable is –I might include it!