Sunday, November 4, 2007

Conflict Resolution 6: The Type-A Solution

CONFLICT RESOLUTION 6

Measure twice, cut once. -Old saying-

Two well-respected authors in the field of conflict resolution, Susan Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy, have eloquently codified the types of mistakes people make in large-scale public disputes. A mistake I often see is what they refer to as the Quick Fix, and in business settings, what I call the Type-A Solution. The Type-A Solution has been employed in a range of venues from small, two-person conflicts to larger departmental and multi-faceted disputes. It goes something like this:

Phase I: A conflict comes to the attention of management. The manager (or the management team), taking insufficient time to understand the issues at hand and the positions of those involved, declares a solution, unconcerned with the ramifications. Perhaps this is done out of frustration with the problem or with having to make a decision under time constraints. It also could be done out of anger. (“If I have to stop this car and turn around, you’re both in big trouble!”)

To be honest, I have to admit that making a "quick fix" can be tempting. Certain personality types are particularly prone to this mistake (we don’t need a show of hands, but I think you might know who you are). The consequence of a Type-A solution is that the disputing parties feel invalidated, unheard, and misunderstood by management; thus, a climate of us vs. them is created. The problem continues to smolder underground and then flares up with a vengeance. However, the disputing parties then have something they can agree on. They usually will agree that you and your solution are a major part of the problem, if not the entire problem. So, lets do a status review: First, you had a problem. Second, your Type-A solution allowed the problem to escalate unabated. Finally, and worst of all, you end up on the playing field as a participant, not as an advisor.

Phase II: As Carpenter and Kennedy explain, after implementing such a solution, you could find yourself in the unsavory and disadvantageous position of having to “sell” it to distrusting and maybe even hostile stakeholders. You'll also have to defend it against the usual crowd of spectators not to mention that you'll appear vulnerable to those who could benefit from your current weakened state. In one fell swoop, your status as a respected and impartial arbitrator will plummet to that of an untrustworthy outsider who is attempting to enforce a unilateral (and possibly half-baked) plan of action. To make matters worse, your motives will also come under suspicion. Oh brother, talk about a reversal of fortune. Unfortunately, what I then see happen quite often is a knee-jerk reaction and another hastily hatched Type-A Solution. Now, I think even the sleepiest students way in the back of the auditorium can see this train leaving the station.

Pop quiz: Can you think of a current international conflict in which we’re seeing the Quick Fix in one form or another? Discuss amongst yourselves. What are your options following such a situation? There is always the time-honored choice of walking away, stating that you provided a solution; how could it possibly be your fault if it’s not working? Second, you could continue selling the plan (or its sequel, the new and improved Plan II). Finally, you could take a deep breath and identify the primary, secondary, and, if needed, tertiary stakeholders, and begin to engage them in discussion and negotiation. Allow them, without your influence, to negotiate a solution that they agree to. My experience is that agreement and consensus will occur over time. If you go about fixing the situation in this way, you will have maintained your neutral and/or advisory position.

- Ian -

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