Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Rules of Conflict

Conflict isn’t automatically negative, although it certainly can be.

Conflict can also be an opportunity for greater understanding, a way to resolve problems, or in some trivial cases, something to be ignored or dismissed.

Conflict involves actual or perceived clashes of needs, wants, values, and interests, and ranges in intensity from polite conversation all the way to war. Conflicts can cause varying amounts of damage, and may be resolved well or poorly.

Project management is a field where conflict is inevitable and common. Stakeholders have needs, wants, values, and interests. Resources are limited. Your goal is to manage inevitable conflict in the most effective way possible.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) identifies various strategies for managing conflict: smoothing, withdrawal, compromise, forcing, and confrontation. Of these, according to PMI, confrontation (I think “negotiation” is a better word) is the strategy normally preferred by project managers.

I think that’s dangerously misleading. In fact, every single one of these strategies has a time and place for which it is the best solution. Two variables should influence your decision. First, how important is achieving your goal to you? If life and death are at stake, your goals are very important to you. If the question is where we’re going to have lunch today, your goals may matter a lot less.

The second question is a little more subtle: how important is the other person’s goal to you? If the conflict is with someone you care about, making them happy may be very important to you. Keeping customers, bosses, and co-workers happy is normally worth some minor concessions on your part. Other times, what the other person wants may not matter to you.

If you plot the PMI categories on a grid, you get the picture above. Let's look at the categories that fall inside the box.

  • Smoothing. Sometimes winning isn’t the issue. You’re having Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family, and someone brings up one of those appropriate dinner table conversation topics—like abortion. No matter how passionate your beliefs, this isn’t the time and isn’t the place, so you avoid the conflict by changing the subject.
  • Withdrawal. Sometimes, as noted, the other person’s needs are more important to you than your own, and you can withdraw or surrender. If you really hate Thai food that much, let’s go somewhere else, even though it’s my favorite cuisine. Conversely, if we’re going out to dinner with a large group and I’m the only one who likes Thai food, I know I’ll be outvoted, so I surrender to the majority graciously.
  • Compromise. Or maybe you don’t like Thai food and I don’t like sushi, so we compromise and decide to go to an Indian restaurant instead. If we both like Indian food well enough, even though we each might like our own choice better, we can have a nice dinner anyway. But if neither of us like Indian, we’re making two people unhappy instead of making only one of us happy, so compromise isn’t always a winning solution.
  • Forcing. I could insist that you join me for Thai food. Perhaps I have a food allergy or dietary restriction that makes it impossible for me to go along with your preference. It’s my way, or no group dinner tonight. Sometimes there's no choice.
  • Negotiation. Finally, we could talk about what we each like about our favorite cuisine and try to find a restaurant that will serve something we each would like to eat. If we’re successful, neither of us has to compromise. We both win.

None of these strategies is inherently right, none inherently wrong. Negotiation is the route to the most satisfying long-term answer, but it takes time and skill, and sometimes there’s not enough at stake to go through the exercise.

When conflict stays within the box, it’s manageable. When conflict breaks out, we call it war.

The opposite of war, you see, isn’t peace. Peace (preferably on your terms) is the goal of war. Pretending the conflict isn’t there doesn’t work. If the stakes are that high, the real opposite of war is negotiation.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A New Political Lexicon

The “loony left,” right “wing nuts,” fanatics, extremists, terrorists — how we define these people normally grows from our own political beliefs and positions. Is it possible to define these categories objectively? Let’s start with the big, general categories:

Categories of Principled People

  • Principled people. While some principles vary depending on political belief or position, other principles are generally accepted across the spectrum. These generally accepted principles include character, integrity, commitment, and hard work. Other principles come from our beliefs and positions, and we call others “principled” when they share and practice those same values.
  • Indifferently principled people. This category, alas, is one most of us fall into at least some of the time. When we don’t live up to the principles we ourselves believe in and advocate, we usually know it.
  • Differently principled people. When people share those generally accepted values of character and integrity, but hold opposing views on political issues, they’re “differently principled.” They may (or may not) be wrong on the issues, but they are consistent and thoughtful on the topic.
  • Unprincipled people. Unprincipled people are centered around self rather than principle. They evaluate their choices and situations in terms of what maximizes personal (and usually short-term) benefit. They are not necessarily evil (but may commit evil acts), but they are almost by definition immoral.
  • Passionate people. What passionate people have in common is a belief their cause is so important it justifies breaking at least some social rules. Passionate people cover a wide spectrum that starts with argument and ends in violence, but that’s not to say that all passionate people are cut from the same cloth. There’s a big difference between someone who insists on trying to win you to their cause verbally and someone who thinks killing a lot of random civilians is a great way to make a point.
  • Kooks. “[T]he fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses,” wrote Carl Sagan. “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” Believing something outside the mainstream doesn’t by itself make you a kook. To be a kook, you have to believe that the mainstream has to prove itself to you, rather than the other way around.

Passionate people. As noted, passionate people cover a wide spectrum. The best way to segment them is by the type and severity of the rules they feel entitled to break.

  • Argumentative/persuasive people simply bring up their topic even when other people disagree or don’t want to hear it.
  • Deliberately rude people believe showing bad manners to the opposition is a good strategy. Public shouting, interruptions, ad hominem attacks, and name-calling fall into this category.
  • Civil disobedient people are willing tobreak laws they consider immoral or unjust, typically in a non-violent way.
  • Extremists use violence or the threat of violence in support of their goals.

At different times or on different issues, we may occupy any of these categories ourselves, so it’s important to point out that even being an extremist isn’t always or necessarily wrong.

It is, however, wrong to confuse passionate people with unprincipled people. Unprincipled people are only out for themselves. Passionate people believe in what they’re doing. That dramatically influences their behavior, and if you confuse the two types, you’re likely to make huge tactical and strategic mistakes in dealing with your opposition.

Kooks. Extreme beliefs aren’t the same thing as extreme behavior. The extremes are determined by the norms – the opinions held by the majority of educated people on a given topic. If there is no strong and overwhelming consensus for a specific opinion, then the contrary opinions are also mainstream. When there is an almost universal consensus among educated people, contrary opinions are not mainstream. (The key is determining in each case who are the “educated” people. Shakespeare's dominance of English letters doesn't rest on whether ordinary joes like his writing, but on whether the consensus of English scholars do.)

But disagreeing with the majority doesn't automatically make you a kook. Believing it's the job of the educated majority to justify itself to you, rather than the other way around, does. “Burden of proof” is a very useful legal concept. Which side owns the burden of proof? In a criminal trial, the prosecution has the burden. Ties go to the defender. What is the burden of proof? Do you have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, or only by the preponderance of the evidence?

When it comes to extreme beliefs, the burden of proof lies with those who challenge conventional opinion, not those who support it. If you want to patent a perpetual motion machine, you can’t make the Patent Office prove your invention can’t work. It’s your job to prove that it can. Intelligent people who want their unconventional and extreme positions to change the world know they have to do it the hard way, by winning over educated opinion.

Kooks are people who believe the burden of proof falls on the mainstream, not on themselves. The world is full of people who walk around with detailed manuscripts “proving” that the Freemasons are secretly behind the Trilateral Commision and crop circles, and insist that opposing opinion is proof of a conspiracy.

It’s the insistence, not the claim itself, that is the gold standard of kookdom. Intelligent out-of-the-mainstream opinion understands and accepts the burden of proof, and works to establish it. Although social inertia makes change a slow process, in time the truth tends to win out.

* * *

This is a work in progress. I’d love to hear your comments. Do these categories seem objective? Is it clear how to categorize today’s controversies? Is it fair and reasonable? Is it useful? What have I missed?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Brand New, Completely Original, and Just Like Everything Else

At the American International Toy Fair in New York City one year – the year the Cabbage Patch Kids were the hot new toy – my boss (a former Hasbro executive) and I were standing in a knockoff importer showroom looking at (no kidding) Broccoli Patch Kids.

I made a predictably sarcastic remark, but in return my boss grinned.

“You’re missing the point,” Jack said. “Intellectual property theft is what the toy business is all about. Yes, this is a stupid knock off, but there’s a brilliant Cabbage Patch knockoff at the show. See if you can find it.”

Armed with the challenge, I peered at every doll and piece of plush in the show. I found plenty of other knockoffs, but none I would call “brilliant.” I gave up eventually.

“You’ve got to understand what the retailer wants,” Jack said, “He wants a brand-new and completely original product that’s just like everything else.”

"Huh?" I said. It still didn't make much sense to me.

“It’s got to be brand-new and completely original, or the retailer can’t sell it,” he continued. “But if it’s not like everything else, he doesn’t know where to merchandise it.”

“Okay,” I said slowly, “so how exactly do you do that?”

“What’s the essential Cabbage Patch gimmick?” he asked.

“You adopt them,” I said.

“What else do you adopt?”

And with that, the lightbulb finally went off. “Pound Puppies!”

He nodded. “They’re just like Cabbage Patch, only completely different. That’s the essence of business creativity.”

Apparent paradoxes exist many places. Because they appear unresolvable, people naturally ignore them. But at least some of these paradoxes can be resolved, and the way to do that is by facing them.

What, for example, would a perfect test look like? Well, a perfect test provides an honest, complete evaluation – and never fails anything. An apparent paradox, but look again.

We don’t want to cheat on the quality of testing because we need to know that the product or service is of good quality. However, we don't really want things to fail testing, because it's costly to do the rework.

Can these apparently contradictory aims be resolved?

Asking this question can lead one to a powerful insight that’s at the core of the modern quality movement: moving incremental testing far further up in the chain so that errors are caught and corrected long before the final test is performed.

We are frustrated because our business environment forces us to do more and more with less and less. “Paradox!” screams our common sense, and morale plummets. But what if we faced the question head on? Try thinking “both-and” rather than “either-or.”

That’s SideWise thinking.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Three Americas

Abdul Aziz Al Saud, first monarch of Saudi Arabia, wanted his nation’s borders based not on geography, but on the migration of tribes. The British High Commissioner, Sir Percy Cox, lost his temper and started yelling, but Ibn Saud had a good point: a nation is not necessarily the same thing as a state. A nation exists in the hearts of the people who belong to it by some combination of heredity and choice. A state, on the other hand, exists in physical space. The two can be as one (a nation-state), but they don’t have to be.

In many parts of the world, nations overlap in the same geography: Israel and Palestine; Turkey, Kurdistan and Iraq; and Tibet, China and Taiwan. Nations can overlap states, be contained within states, or be distributed in communities worldwide like the Chinese and Jewish Diasporas. Such relations tend to be uneasy, and sometimes (Yugoslavia, Rwanda) turn tragic.

What makes a group of people into a “nation”? Culture, common geographic or ethnic origin, religion, history, numbers, and political clout all combine. Nations can self-declare, but others eventually have to recognize them as a distinct population. The Kurds and Tibetans are generally recognized as nations even if not as states. Some nations (Native American tribes) get some limited privileges of statehood. Other self-proclaimed nations (Nation of Islam, Aryan Nation) get little recognition except from their immediate circle.

“Nation” can exist on a metaphorical plane as well. We can be members of more than one nation (if not more than one state) at a time. We might recognize our national, ethnic, or racial origins, or embrace the community of our religion or political movement. Regional differences form nations. In his 1981 book The Nine Nations of North America, the Washington Post writer Joel Garreau identified nine culturally distinct nations sharing our North American continent.

I’d like to propose three nations of my own. Three distinct motives drove Europeans to conquer and settle the New World.

  1. Business. New Romans came to conquer and build. The frontier was dangerous, but the potential rewards were great. “The business of America is business,” New Romans tell us, and pragmatically measure success in terms of wealth. It’s not an accident that Washington classical architecture is Roman in style, or that we have a Senate and do not have a king. Above all, it's no accident we maintain the world's largest military.
  2. Faith. New Israelites, from the Puritans of New England to the Baptists of Dixie to the Mormons of Utah, came here to settle a new Promised Land, to build anew the institutions and society of God.
  3. Society. New Athenians came from the explosive development of liberalism in Europe, which sparked a revolt against aristocracy and the divine right of kinds. Embodied by the intellectual elite that clustered around the hotbeds of political thought in great American cities like Williamsburg, Philadelphia, and Boston, they sought to build a pure Athenian democracy.
Each of the three nations has equal roots that stretch back before the founding of the United States of America. We share, but none of us owns outright, the state, even if from time to time we all wish we could.

We are fortunate that no group is powerful enough to dominate alone. In practice, the country is governed by a shifting and inherently unstable alliance of two out of the three nations. Traditionally, New Romans, pragmatic in orientation, find it easiest to unify in a common cause with either of the other two nations, although occasionally New Athenians and New Israelites have found common cause. And there's not a simple Athenian=liberal, Israelite=conservative pattern either: libertarians are New Athenian conservatives; utopian religious communities are New Israelite liberals. New Romans occupy the whole spectrum as well.

Viewed through this lens, here’s our recent pattern: New Athenians and New Romans united to conquer the Great Depression and World War II. Their alliance could not withstand the philosophical discord and disintegrated over Vietnam and civil rights. Inertia sustained the cause for a while, but by the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, the foundation had clearly crumbled beyond repair, and a new alliance of Israelite and Roman led the country into a new era, which now too appears to be at an end.

(Some will argue that the Reagan Israelite/Roman alliance is merely suffering a temporary setback, but that’s not the way to bet. The fracturing and realignment is natural, and even if it can be staved off for a while, it can’t be stopped.)

Regardless of your national identification, there’s a lot to like about the well-known 30-year political cycle. Ideas, like fields, need to lie fallow from time to time to maintain healthy crops. A strategy that worked on one set of problems turns into a one-size-fits-all solution, working on the well-known theory that when the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems start to look like nails.

The success and the stability of the system require the three nation tribes to live with one another. The relationship among the three Americas too often resembles something in between a food fight and the Hatfield-McCoy feud.

When we share geography with people whose values we dislike or distrust, we have to accept that they are here, that they are not going anywhere, and that they have a right to be part of the public discourse. Nations that have not been able to recognize and accept their overlapping distant cousins as neighbors inevitably turn to the only logical alternative: get rid of them. While the United States has robust cultural and legal institutions that make such an outcome unlikely, it’s never impossible.

When I was young, my father made a point of paying attention to news sources and ideas he found stupid, repugnant, or just plain wrong. He wanted to make sure he understood them. I know he paid attention; I’ve even known him to change his mind. That's SideWise Thinking.

People who disagree with you can be opponents or enemies. Opponents are people with whom you have opposing interests, but a good relationship (trust, mutual respect.) Opponents keep you on your toes, make you think harder, and often stimulate your best work. Good opponents make your ideas better and your life richer. They can

When respect and trust are absent, opponents turn into enemies, and with enemies, it’s personal and negative. "Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer" doesn't mean what most people think. Contact provides opportunity, either to find common ground, or to build a better relationship. While success isn't always possible, it's usually worthwhile to make a reasonable effort.