Competition or Cooperation: Both/And?

May 23, 2011

In numerous ways, New York Times columnist David Brooks currently may be adding more to the body of science supporting the work of conflict management than any other thinker or writer. As evidenced by his recent tour d’force “fictional non-fiction” work, The Social Animal:  The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, Brooks has compiled an exhaustive compendium of inter-disciplinary work product which informs the work dispute resolvers, conflict managers and problem-solvers of our age are engaged in each day.

Continuing in this commendable fashion, Brooks writes in the The York Times that the social development of human beings is remarkably unlike that of all other life forms in that moral underpinnings are common to human interaction.  His commentary “Nice Guys Finish First” brings together numerous recent social, neuro-scientific, religious and anthropological studies to illustrate that unlike all other mammals, humans are best served to care for each other as well as protect themselves.  As a matter of cultural development, the “survival of the fittest” is tempered in humans by the need to cooperate to achieve mutual benefit.  When I act in cooperation with others, I am willing to sacrifice something of selfish value to achieve a “greater good”.  Only humans are capable of this moral thinking, Brooks (and his sources) argue.

This tension between preserving one’s self-interest and the mutually beneficial pursuit of the interests of others is a key element of conflict management theory and practice.  Neither should predominate at the expense of the other.  Both must be managed in a healthy interdependent fashion.

Accommodating the needs of others without regard to personal interest leads to exploitation and abuse.  Competition without regard to the needs of others destroys relationships and diminishes the value of living and working in community.  Skilled conflict managers in business, civic affairs, personal and religious settings know how to hold these seemingly inconsistent forces in a healthy and constructive tension.

It is exciting to realize how science and social researchers are confirming what the conflict management community has known and practiced for decades:  competition and cooperation are not “either/or” propositions.  “Both/and” is the power behind innovation, creativity and problem-solving and the key to building a better society.


An Elected Official: Conflict Management Student with Impact

May 11, 2011

Hear directly from ICM students in Nashville, TN who have applied what they have learned in class directly to their work in the Tennessee State Legislature.     Come learn with us:

The Flat World of Revolution: Complex Adaptive Systems in Action

February 12, 2011

“Anyone wanting to teach a course in 21st-century politics should begin in Egypt, where the power of real-time flat Web-savvy organizations over ponderous hierarchies has just been illustrated.” Roger Cohen, New York Times, February 11, 2011

Much will be written about the origins and the consequences of the decisions made by the organizers of the Tahrir Square uprising that changed not only Egypt, but the world. Although the Cairo revolution has now achieved its initially implausible goal of ousting Hosnir Mubarak from his tyrannical post, creating a democracy in the wake of this week’s events is another matter entirely.  We can only watch and cheer on the fledgling democratic spermatozoa as it seeks its illusive unfertilized egg in hopes of creating a zygote with some potential for sustainable life.

Among the many astonishing lessons the Tahrir demonstrations teach us about strategic approaches to change in complex adaptive systems (See Complex Adaptive Systems: Why Hierarchy is Dead), one is the power of the flat organization.  Hierarchies bent on retaining power require cumbersome bureaucracies of command and control which are dependent on the coercive influence of individuals in each descending level of the organization.  Individuals recoil at the loss of their freedom to choose.

In contrast, flat organizations are motivated by far more powerful influences than fear.  Autonomy, purpose and mastery are more influential by far than holding on to a position or the pay grade one occupies.  (See Daniel Pink’s Drive.)  Hierarchies work through the status they confer and the ascending emoluments of power they create.  All that crumbles in the face of flat organizations where all are empowered equally and given autonomy to achieve greater purposes than maintaining the status quo.

This dynamic shift in power in Cairo was achieved in the two weeks leading up to January 25, 2011.  Emboldened by the amazing events in Tunisia following the fall of a cruel dictator and his culture of fear, a dozen young Egyptians outwitted the feared security forces of Mubarak as they planned a demonstration which was “off the grid”.  As reported by the Wall Street Journal, it was a secret rally that sparked an uprising.

Meeting in the living room of one of the young revolutionary’s mother, the planners created a diversionary tactic which dispatched the President’s security forces to 20 sites across Cairo. The police were sent to dispel “flash mobs” of protesters organized to gather following prayers at pre-established sites near mosques around the city.  However, the site which was not publicized for the benefit of security force reaction was a candy store near a slum section of the city.  The poor youth gathered unmolested by police and marched on Tahrir Square which was unsuspected and unprotected.

A revolution was born.  The power of flat was demonstrated.  Hierarchy was unable to catch up and ultimately has succumbed to its ponderous reliance on the status quo and the coercive use of power.  The hope of democracy has been ignited into a spark of life.

Go spermatozoa, go!

Saving Face and a Country in Chaos

February 3, 2011

Like most of you, I have watched with confusion and sadness as one of the great civilizations of the world seems to be collapsing into chaos.  While I am no Egyptologist or an expert on Middle Eastern relations, I did listen intently to an interesting interview of an Egyptian who lives in Cairo.  This university educated man chose to participate in the initial stages of the protest.  However, after the announcement by the government that President Mubarak would not run for re-election, he chose to stop protesting.  The American reporter asked why he chose not to pressure the President to step down immediately.  His response was fascinating.

We must allow the man some dignity.  He was a war hero and even though I do not support his governance, he must not be humiliated.

The American reporter seemed stunned.  She pressed the man stating that the President was not respected and the people wanted him to leave now.  The American went further speculating that his announcement may have been a ploy to remain in power long enough to set up a transition that benefited the ruling party.  The Egyptian agreed that these were all possibilities.  But, the man replied:

We MUST allow him to save face.  We have no right to embarrass him.

To the American reporter (and to many Westerners), this argument seems trivial.  American politicians routinely embarrass people as a matter of course.  We can’t imagine “letting someone off the hook”  just so they wouldn’t be public shamed.  But, the reporter missed a strong cultural cue.  In many societies, Eastern and Middle Eastern in particular, allowing someone personal dignity is a key component in relationship and conflict.  In these cultures, if even if you get your way, you lose if you humiliate your opponent.

There is much we have to learn.  Even though Westerners don’t value this worldview as a culture, we value it individually.  No one wants to be humiliated.  No one needs to be shamed in a loss.  Even when we are put in competitive environments, it is incumbent on us to treat others respectfully.  We allow people to save face, even if they don’t deserve it.

Perhaps, it is best if President Mubarak steps down immediately, but whatever happens, I have learned much from this man.  If an Egyptian who is watching his beloved country crumble around him can provide that grace to a 30-year leader of a regime, can I not treat my boss, co-workers, employees, service workers, and family with the same kindness?

Riot, Revolution or Restitution?: Unrest in the Arab World

February 3, 2011

“The new generation, the generation of the Internet, is fearless. They want their full rights, and they want life, a dignified life.”   Shawki al-Qadi, Yemen

The scenes are rivoting.  The meaning unclear.  As rocks fly, men on horses and camels charge the crowd and homemade bombs explode, supporters of the government seek to disrupt the power of people clamoring for freedom while the most powerful army in the Middle East watches without response.  Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen.  Who’s next?

A regional movement without a leader.  At one time the leader might have been Qaddafi, Hussein, Nasser or Arafat.  Voices without a spokesperson clamor for a new order.  The spokesmen who have attempted to fill the power vacuum have not succeeded to this point in speaking the mind of the people in the streets.  Apparently committed to peaceful protest, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children remain unmoved, insisting on freedom, dignity and a culture of collaboration.  They are clearly willing to sacrifice their life and liberty for something more fundamental than comfort and security.

“[P]rotesters offered an alternative, their empowerment standing as possibly the most remarkable legacy of a people who often lamented their apathy.” Anthony Shadid in today’s New York Times cites a regional awakening in search of a leader.  He quotes a woman in Cairo as she joins the mass expression of  hope, “I’m fighting for my freedom,” Noha al-Ustaz said as she broke bricks on the curb. “For my right to express myself. For an end to oppression. For an end to injustice.”

This uprising in Arab nations, each more or less friendly to U.S. interests, seems to involve far more than geopolitical alliances or religious purity.  The cries for freedom from tyranny recall other movements in search of a leader.  Our own U.S. revolution is certainly one.  However, even in our history, cries for freedom rang out from peaceful protest to change slavery, civil rights and other denials of human dignity.

As cited in this space earlier (See: The End of Coercive Power: Really?) the death of fundamentalism has been predicted by much wiser minds.  Hierarchy which exists to deny the universal human need for dignity, autonomy and purpose cannot survive.  Autocratic leadership in business, government or religion will meet its end at the hands of people who will regain their autonomy by any means possible, peaceful or otherwise.

Add to the deep human longing for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” the power of the Internet, autocrats beware.  Tyrants be warned.  The capacity for instant communication to mobilize the masses in the face of oppression changes everything.  The first line of defense in today’s battle for the allegiance of an oppressed people is “shut down the Internet”.  The thinking is, “prevent them from sharing ideas and the narrative of freedom, and the demonstrations will end.”  If the autocrats can prevent “mass collaboration” the tyranny can last a little longer.  But not much longer.  (See: Mass Collaboration)

What is unfolding in Egypt (Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen) represents something far larger than political unrest in an Arab country.  It is less about which brand of Muslim theology will prevail.  It has less to do with geopolitical alliances than basic human needs.  To a conflict manager the headlines reveal something far more telling.

Fundamental change in thinking requires a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and a new narrative of hope.  Without the new narrative, dissatisfaction is merely unrest waiting for a leader to emerge. When people reach the point that the old normal is unsatisfying, the search for meaning begins.  In Egypt, in business, in religion and education, mass collaboration will unseat stale and self-protective leadership.  Conflict managers can help the dissatisfied protesters, congregants and employees search for new meaning, forge new neuro-pathways and create a new reality out of their own expectations while preserving self-determination.

The path to peace in the Middle East must begin with dissatisfaction, but will only progress through the creation of new narratives which capture the imagination of hope.  With each trans-Atlantic cable, with each diplomatic initiative there must be a new story which connects the present with the possible.  In each troubled business or marriage, there must be a journey from dissatisfaction to discovery in which the next adjacent possibility leads to a new awakening.  This is the wonderfully challenging and rewarding work of conflict management.

In all these conflicts, watch as the outcomes take shape through the visioning of leaders who can articulate the new narrative which satisfies the hunger of mass collaboration.  Occasionally, the process of transformational change gets valuable assistance from peacemakers who can help the participants in conflict visualize their own path to peace.  Such is the moment in Cairo.


Tragedy in Tuscon: Monday Morning Musings

January 10, 2011

Where does one go from a world of insanity? Somewhere on the other side of despair.
TS (Thomas Stearns) Eliot

As the Nashville Blizzard of 2011 picks up steam, one is left to consider the imponderables of life and death.  A few inches of snow in Nashville will immobilize this city, its education and commerce for days to come.  What better time to contemplate the senseless tragedies of our culture, our time and our human condition?

A deranged gunman, a murdered federal judge, a beloved Congresswoman and a nine year old girl born on September 11, 2001. They and seventeen others are all victims of what seems to be a world gone mad.  Mass murders are not new.  However, they have grown increasingly symbolic of a society that has lost its bearings.  If we seek meaning behind the tragedy in Tuscan on January 8, 2011, meaning loses its meaning.

The picture emerges of an increasingly disturbed young man with obvious pathologies the “system” was unable to protect or to protect others from.  “Odd” behavior in college classes led school authorities to insist that a condition of re-admittance would be an psychological assessment that he was not a danger to himself or others.  That solution was not forthcoming nor sufficiently motivating to prompt the pursuit of help.  The school could do no more and assumed legal risks to do even that.  The rights of the criminally insane are no less sacrosanct than those “the rest of us” enjoy.

A young girl was at the supermarket parking lot excited to see her Congresswoman.  To her family she was the bright spot in a bleak era.  Born on 9/11, she offered promise that all is not lost.  Hope springs eternal and to her family she represented life from the ashes.  Indiscriminately gunned down, her family struggles to understand why.

A federal judge, no stranger to controversy was himself the target of death threats for decisions he had made from the bench.  Yet he refused to be intimidated by “the crazies”.  A random victim, he was not the target of the gunman’s wrath, but merely an innocent bystander.

A Congresswoman, not noted for controversy, but for statesmanship.  She was considered a legislator concerned about the problems most people face and especially focused on the marginalized in society.  Her synagogue gathered in prayer for her recovery on Sunday morning following the shooting and lauded her courage, her compassion and her commitment to her constituents.  She seems to have made few enemies in her public service.  To the contrary she was loved by many.  She was gunned down at one of her trademark Congress on the Corner events where she took government to the people she represented.

There were sixteen other gunshot victims as well.  The ironies of this tragedy are poignantly illustrated by these few.

Some suggest that this event will mark the low point of intolerance in our culture.  I hope they are right.  Some say that incivility has reached its limit in this tragedy.  I support them in their aspiration.

However, search for both meaning and systemic solutions may be equally illusory.  Insanity has no reason.  Irrational behavior neither can be predicted nor bounded by social convention or security measures.

Instead, cultivating a culture of consultation might assist our society in better addressing the ills of the Tragedy in Tuscon.  Clearly, Congresswoman Giffords was dedicated to this work.  Her rabbi stated that she was engaged in the work of “repairing the world”.  The Saturday event was organized by the Congresswoman’s organizer of community outreach, Gabriel Zimmerman.  Of him it was said, “He was great with really difficult people, with people who were angry and upset; he was a peacemaker.” Mr. Zimmerman died in the onslaught working as a peacemaker.

There are no guarantees that the work of peacemaking is safe, comfortable or appreciated by all.  However, giving up is not an option.

Our hearts and prayers go out to all the victims of the Tragedy in Tuscon.  Let’s work hard to not let the work of peacemaking be another victim.  That hope can be our anchor “on the other side of despair.”

Adjacent Possibilities: The Only Path to Innovation

January 4, 2011

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a step”  Chinese Proverb

While in Atlanta recently for a weekend getaway, I was attracted to an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution which profiled Dr. Donald G. Stein who had noticed the significant difference in the ability of women to recover from brain injuries in striking contrast to men.  Suspecting a gender based distinction rather than random chance, Dr. Stein spent 25 years studying the clinical data.  Finally, it was determined that the causative factor in the ability of women to heal more rapidly is the hormone progesterone.  Emory University is now engaged in full scale clinical trials to bring to men the natural capability women have to heal from brain injuries.

What impressed me was the doctor’s recognition that great discoveries never occur in large leaps.  Instead, significant innovations occur one contiguous step at a time.  Although he long suspected the link, it wasn’t until a clinical study first established it would be safe to experiment with progesterone in men, that the link was clearly established.  As stated by one of his colleagues, “In some respects, Don’s discovery was hiding in plain sight for decades.”

This describes the principle of “adjacent possibilities” as best developed by Steven Johnson in his great book on innovation, Where Good Ideas Come From.  The Wall Street Journal cited Johnson’s book as one of the best business texts of 2010.

Johnson analogizes the process of effective innovation as moving from where we are to “the next room”.  It’s as if we find ourselves in a room with four doors, each of which leads to a new room.  Once we choose a door we find ourselves in another room with three new doors.  As we explore each new room we can only do so from the perspective of the room we left.  Innovation does not occur by “leaps and bounds” but by the next “adjacent possibility”.  Otherwise, the best ideas are simply “ahead of their time”.

For example, mediators only incrementally help people caught in conflict move from the place where they find themselves to a solution to their problem.  Parties who agree to meet with a mediator have taken the first step, but only the first step toward resolution.  Agreeing to ground rules or norms of expected behavior in the mediation room is another important step.  The Chinese had it right, “The journey of thousand miles begins with a step.”  As agreements are reached on “small” items, larger concerns can be addressed more readily.

It seems that the legal services industry is ripe for a next step, which ten or even five years ago would have been unthinkable.  All business people, and most lawyers, know that the legal services business model is unlike any found in the client corporations or businesses the lawyers serve.  While business has been moving steadily toward a business model which rewards efficiency, law firms have been stuck in the “billable hour” conundrum by which the more time spent on a matter, the greater the fee and the more economically successful the law firm.

Clients have been recoiling at this incentive system for decades, but law firms have known no other way to budget or reward success than through the billable hour.  However, the recession of the last few years has significantly altered the leverage.  Corporate clients have called a halt to the ever increasing hourly rate and have begun to insist on no rate increases at all, even demanding discounts on prevailing hourly rates, some as high as 25% off standard rates.

As a result, law firms are now looking for ways to modify the profitability paradigm.  For the first time, law firms are examining quality management system, lean production principals, and Six Sigma training for clues about incentivizing efficiency and improving quality.  Project management skills and cost estimating strategies have found their way into the law firm manager’s lexicon.  We are in a new room and the adjacent possibilities are exciting.

When law firms follow the path of innovation to the next room they will discover what their corporate clients have already learned.  Enterprise technology solutions can improve efficiency (good for the client), reduce time spent on legal matters (good for the lawyer), improve the quality and delivery of legal matters (good for the client and the lawyer) and improve profitability while actually decreasing the cost of services (great for the law firm and the client).

For more information about these exciting adjacent possibilities see The Legal Services Industry White Paper.