Conflict resolution in a collaboration without having to resort to compromise 


A fear that haunts everyone in a collaboration is having to compromise. That is how you achieve conflict resolution isn’t it?

Not necessarily. In fact if you resort to compromise you are not tapping into the one of the advantages of working in a collaboration.

Ahhh! Conflict.

Do you remember those ‘books’ that had some type of enticing title such as ‘sex secrets’ that were not books at all but an electric shock device that triggered once you opened it?

It felt like someone was driving a thick wire through the blood vessels in your arms with a jerking motion. You only had to open the book once to experience an almost immediate avoidance reaction when you saw the book. You would not even want to touch it.

Most people have a similar avoidance reaction when they see a conflict about to happen in a meeting.

Perhaps the build up to a conflict triggers a memory of a conflict in the past.

A conflict that threatened a friendship, or the relationship with a family member. Or maybe one that made you feel like a fool, extremely uncertain, or even guilty.

For most the default behaviour is to avoid conflict at all cost.

Is that the best strategy?

What can you do about conflict?

You can:

try to ignore it. An ignored conflict just festers. Instead of truly understanding your viewpoint, the person you could be conflicting with is using his or her imagination to rationalise their point of view and attribute lots of negative characteristics to you. Unfair, but reality.

get emotional. This is an interesting strategy because it plays on the fact that most people try to avoid conflict. Start yelling and your opponents are likely to shut up. Often a short term win, however in the long term there will be a price to pay. A person who gets emotional in conflict is not a person most want to work with. People will begin to ignore you or at the least find ways to solve the problem that might lead to a conflict with you without you.

use back channels to get your way while feigning acquiescence. This is potentially an appealing strategy. You avoid the uncomfortable feeling you get with direct, open conflict, but you still address the problem. The caveat is that as a strategy this is worse than getting emotional. And it is a strategy that has a name.

It is passive aggressiveness. The problem with passive aggressiveness is that it fuels more conflict. It is a strategy that is often used by those who prefer to work in silos even within a collaborative project. Projects with lots of silos and passive aggressive maneuvering are the projects at the greatest risk of collapsing.

be open and dispassionately assertive. In other words be as transparent as possible. This is why transparency is a core principle for an effective and efficient collaboration. However, being transparent is often not enough.

Everyone can be open, transparent and conflicting all over the place, there remains a risk that conflicts will remain unresolved. You’ll be at an impasse and progress will be hindered. What do you do?

Putting on as many ‘hats’ as possible

One possibility is to use the ‘six thinking hats’ technique.

This technique was developed by Edward de Bono and is premised on the concept that for any given decision or conflict there are different perspectives. Thus, the idea is to give credence to all the different perspectives in a time boxed discussion. The six hats are:

  1. Managing
  2. Information
  3. Emotions
  4. Discernment
  5. Optimism
  6. Creativity

Each is assigned a color: Blue, white, red, black, yellow, and green respectively. The idea is to work through each of these different perspectives but to not revisit them once discussed [1].

The principle of this approach is well founded, but remains a technique for increasing transparency. Often when the conflicting parties better understand each other they realise they both want the same thing. But what do you do if there is a genuine road blocking conflict?

There is real strength in accessing a diversity of perspectives. The biggest challenge is the linearity of such an approach.

In a diverse group there are not only diverse perspectives there are diverse personality types. Closing off a perspective prematurely may exclude some of the perspectives of the more introverted members of the group.

You might say, oh we shouldn’t have introverts, but that would be a mistake.

Introversion is not social awkwardness. Being an introvert means you are particularly analytical or focused on one’s ‘inner psychic activity’ [2]. Often the silence of the introvert means she is assimilating and integrating all the different discussion points made. If you call on her to give a perspective you will often get an integrated and creative perspective. If she feels her perspective fits best under the white thinking hat, information, and you close that discussion before she is ready to speak, you lose the opportunity to gain from her perspective

This raises the issue of timing. Can you frame, discuss, and resolve difficult problems and create new strategies, services, or products in a day?

Creative solutions to problems need time and sleep

Creativity requires time and not unsurprisingly sleep. It is well established that you are more creative once you have slept. This is the cause of the classic ‘flash of insight’ when you first wake up.

In an experiment reported in Nature researchers demonstrated that people who slept were twice as likely to gain insight into a hidden rule that enabled them to perform cognitive tasks faster, than those who did not [3].

Closing the discussion on a perspective after a single meeting removes any possibility to benefit from this type of integrative thinking. Doing so runs the risk of reverting to ‘ignore it and it will go away’ conflict avoidance strategy. And that is a weak strategy.

Nonetheless it is important to keep the the concept of the six thinking hats in mind when working on conflict resolution. The principle of acknowledging that there are different perspectives is key for avoiding ending up with a compromise.

The real strength of collaboration

Sure the motivation for many collaborative efforts is to reduce the amount of effort you would have to invest to achieve a particular goal, but the real strength of a collaboration is much more than that.

Most collaborations have within them a breadth of expertise and experience that is beyond what you typically have in an internal working group. This is where collaborations have a particular strength in regards to conflict resolution.

Diversity is important for conflict resolution. It makes it easier to come up with a win-win solution. Certainly you have heard of ‘win-win’, but do you know who is credited with coming up with that strategy and when?

An unsung heroine of the late 19th century management literature

Mary Parker Follett was born in 1868 and experienced early scholarly success at the age of 22. What is remarkable however, is that she did not follow a typical career as a scholar. Instead she worked in the poor immigrant communities outside of Boston.

” We should never allow ourselves to be bullied by an ‘either or.’ There is often the possibility of something better than either of two given alternatives.”

She used her work in these communities to test her ideas about management and as a source for new ideas, including ideas on conflict resolution [4].

Follett lists three ways to resolve conflict:

  1. Domination
  2. Compromise
  3. Integration

Integration is the development of a new and better solution where the interests of the conflicting parties is preserved.

For Follett the first step was bringing the differences out in the open and trying to understand what the hidden demand was behind the differences. The six thinking hat approach echoes Follet in this regard. The difference is that Follet advocated going further than just gaining a common understanding of each other.

By combining different perspectives of a diversity of experts you can develop creative solutions to conflicts that would never have been thought of in isolation.  It is somewhat ironic that diversity is both the origin and an opportunity to achieve effective conflict resolution.

Follet’s perspective is reflected in the leadership principles of one of the giants of the internet:

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly [5].

The giant is Amazon, a company whose CEO is know for a confrontational style as was Steve Jobs. Perhaps not an accident that two of the most innovative companies of recent times have leadership that values conflict. Yet if you have conflict you have to have a way to resolve it.

Unlike a company lead by a visionary who ultimately resolves the conflict, a collaboration is a partnership of equals. A strategy for resolving conflict is a requirement for any collaboration.

Implementing a conflict resolution strategy

In essence effective confllict resolution is about structuring discussion keeping in mind a few principles:

  1. A somewhat neutral party should be facilitating the process
  2. Take account of the many different perspectives for any given conflict
  3. Discussions should be iterative allowing those involved to integrate and ponder during ‘down time’
  4. Break conflict into smaller ‘demands’
  5. Use the diversity of perspective is an opportunity to develop a integrative and creative solution
  6. Iterate the ideas for integrative solutions with the group
  7. Determine if all the ‘demands’ are being met by the integrative solution
  8. Don’t settle for compromise

It is only when you realise that conflict is the energy that drives creativity in a collaboration that you can begin to work towards an integrative no-compromise resolution of a conflict. You should embrace the need to resolve a conflict as a golden opportunity, not something to avoid.

  1. de Bono, Edward (1985). Six Thinking Hats: An Essential Approach to Business Management. Little, Brown, & Company. ISBN 0-316-17791-1.
  2. Jung, Carl (1995). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London: Fontana Press.
  3. Wagner, Ullrich Sleep inspires insight Nature 427, 352-355 (22 January 2004)

  4. Bassett, Deborah  Mary Parker Follett: A Public Scholar “Far Ahead of Her Time”
  5. Stone, Brad  The Secrets of Bezos: How Amazon Became the Everything Store  Business Week October 10th 2013

Scott Wagers, MD is an expert in convergent approaches to science and innovation. Getting multiple disciplines and multiple stakeholders to work together and deliver on ambitious projects is challenging, but it is exactly what we achieved in projects like U-BIOPRED, AirPROM, COPD MAP, and eTRIKS. Finding ways to get groups to work together to achieve an exceptional level of creativity is what I am passionate about.

About The Author

Scott Wagers

Scott Wagers, MD is an expert in convergent approaches to science and innovation. Getting multiple disciplines and multiple stakeholders to work together and deliver on ambitious projects is challenging, but it is exactly what we achieved in projects like U-BIOPRED, AirPROM, COPD MAP, and eTRIKS. Finding ways to get groups to work together to achieve an exceptional level of creativity is what I am passionate about.

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