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Green Cape or Red?


Solving “Wicked” Problems

Red Cape or Green?


      Imagine you have been charged with making the biggest possible difference for the world and the seven billion of us on it. Quite the challenge. But you are in luck, for I am a magic genie and can grant you one wish. I can give you a RED cape which will let you stop “bad” things. Or I can give you a GREEN cape which will let you grow good” things. Which cape will you choose?



      Want to stop Famine? How about Disease? Simply put on your red cape and wish them away. But what do you get if you stop famine? People who are no longer starving. (Don’t get me wrong; that would be a good thing. But is it enough?) What happens if you stop disease? Does the absence of sickness imply health? I think not. Simply ending the problem is insufficient.

      If you wanted to end famine, what would you grow instead using your green cape? How about something like “well-nourished” people.  If you wanted to end disease, what about growing “healthy” people? Notice how focusing on what you want more of, versus what you want less of can actually have a much bigger impact in actually dealing with the problem. Also note that in no way does Green Cape thinking ignore the very real problems facing the world.

      So if it’s true for changing the world, does it also hold true in business? What do you get if you stop customer dissatisfaction? Customers may no longer be leaving (again, a good thing) but are they telling their friends and families wonderful stories about your business. What if, instead, you grew loyal and passionate customers? Might that have a greater impact on your bottom line?

      Having a problem with staff turnover? Need to stop your best people from walking out the door?  What if you could grow an engaged and motivated workforce? Might your talent stick around?  The positive image of the future you want carries incredible power, much more than the negative image of the past you wish to avoid.

Positive Image              Positive Action

      What impact can a positive image have? At the individual level think of the power of our images of ourselves evident in the Placebo Effect. Most of the medical profession now accepts as genuine the fact that anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of all patients will show marked physiological and emotional improvement in symptoms simply by believing that they are being given an effective treatment, even when that treatment is just a sugar pill or some other inert substance.

(The Placebo: Is it Much Ado About Nothing? Arthur K. Shapiro and Elaine Shapiro; The Placebo Effect: An Interdisciplinary Exploration; By Anne Harrington 1997, Harvard University Press, Boston, Mass.)


      At the group level, the Pygmalion effect is equally persuasive.  In 1968, Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard University professor, and Leonore Jacobson, a principal of an elementary school in San Francisco, published ‘Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development’. The main argument of the book is that the expectations that teachers have about their students’ behavior can unwittingly influence such behavior. This influence, or self-fulfilling prophecy, could have a positive or negative impact. In other words, when teachers expect students to do well, they tend to do well; when teachers expect students to fail, they tend to fail.   

Rosenthal and Jacobson borrowed the term ‘Pygmalion effect’ from a play by George Bernard Shaw (‘Pygmalion’) in which a professor’s high expectations radically transformed the educational performance of a lower-class girl. ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’ describes an experiment carried out in an elementary school (which the authors call Oak School) to test the hypothesis that in any given classroom there is a correlation between teachers’ expectations and students’ achievement. In the experiment, Rosenthal and Jacobson gave an intelligence test to all of the students at an elementary school at the beginning of the school year. Then, they randomly selected 20 percent of the students – without any relation to their test results – and reported to the teachers that these 20% of students were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and could be expected to “bloom” in their academic performance by the end of the year. Eight months later, at the end of the academic year, they came back and re-tested all the students. Those labeled as “intelligent” children showed significantly greater increase in the new tests than the other children who were not singled out for the teachers’ attention.”

History of Education Daniel Schugurensky, URL:


It was proven that the image that the teacher held of the student was a more powerful predictor of a child’s performance than IQ scores, home environment, or past performance. Image creates action!


Green Cape thinking carries a much more positive, and therefore powerful and energizing image of the future galvanizing action rather then resistance.


So, which do you choose– Red or Green?

Note: I was first introduced to the Red Cape/Green Cape idea by Dr. James Paweski, PhD, from the Positive Psychology Center at University of  Pennsylvania.


1 Alice Gavin Atashkar { 08.22.13 at 10:38 pm }

This is very thought provoking, well researched and easy to read. Thank you for putting AI so succinctly in a way which is easy to understand. I would be interested to know, if, in your experience have you had folk dismiss the technique for being too ‘wooly’ ‘nice’ ‘not in the real world’ etc….and your response. Many thanks Neil.

2 neil { 09.18.13 at 2:41 am }

Thanks Alice, as for AI being “wooly”, I rarely talk about AI anymore until deep into the conversation with the leader/manager. Instead I focus on what business issues he or she is facing and how the past and current attempts to deal with them are going. Often I hear, “not so well”. I then propose a different approach and talk through what it might look, sound and feel like and ONLY THEN, do I talk about AI. Keep it in their language rather than ours is my motto.

3 Ali Van Putten { 04.19.14 at 11:40 pm }

Thanks Alice! This was one of my favorite modules when I studied at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and I’m so grateful to see it laid out here for more people to consider! It’s very profound;)

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