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Is it too much to ask that decision makers make use of a collaborative goal and values-based conflict resolution approach to come to effective resolutions that satisfy needs?
Whether decisions are made in socio-political, organizational, and personal realms we all know that they are important. They direct action, resolve and cause disagreements. Decisions, if carried out, have physical, financial, emotional and relationship impacts.
Decisions are most likely to be “good” ones when disagreements or conflicts are well managed. The best decisions are made with clear objectivity and lead to achieving goals.
In my article Arguing to Learn and to Win I described a hybrid approach between arguing to learn (ATL) and arguing to win (ATW). This article focuses on ATL and how winning can emerge from learning through a collaborative approach like the Evaporating Cloud (EC), one of the six thinking processes in Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints.
The process is a technique designed to cut through disagreements by turning attention to fulfilling all parties’ goals rather than seeking only what each person wants.
In short, EC works on the premise that conflicts can be resolved when the parties get what they need. They satisfy their goals and values.
If the overarching goal is prosperity, peace, health, freedom, and happiness, decision makers must have an accurate sense of what each term means in concrete practical terms.
In the world of projects, goals like prosperity are expressed in terms of cost savings, revenue, and profit. Happiness is satisfying stakeholder expectations. Health is about the goal of sustaining the wellbeing of project performers to enable effective performance over time.
With an understanding of goals, we can identify relative weights. For example, are financial goals more important than employee health and wellbeing? Are the weights negotiable?
In projects it is much easier to attain consensus about goals than it is in social and political disagreements. Projects are objective focused and, assuming the project is a healthy one, the objectives align with organizational goals.
When there is no consensus on goals and values, we have a zero-sum game with winners and losers. Handling those is a subject for a future article on arguing to win.
The Evaporating Cloud (EC)
Now, back to the Evaporating Cloud (EC) technique and finding win-win resolution.
“If you really want to remove a cloud from your life, you do not make a big production out of it, you just relax and remove it from your thinking. That’s all there is to it.“
“The Evaporating Cloud tool is intended to similarly “vaporize” difficult problems by collaboratively resolving an underlying conflict. “[Goldratt teaches] that every problem is a conflict, and that conflicts arise because we create them by believing at least one erroneous assumption. Thus, simply by thinking about the assumptions that enforce the existence of a conflict, we should be able to resolve any conflict by evaporating it with the power of our thinking. “
Though the power of thinking has its limitations. To use a collaborative approach, at least one of the parties must step back to objectively perceive the cloud, and their place in it:
- Needs vs. Wants
- Willingness to negotiate and collaborate to face the issues not the opponent.
In addition, the parties’ goals, values, and priorities must be compatible. For example, is getting elected or promoted more important than deciding on an optimal decision to serve the organization? Is your goal to have your design selected or to achieve project and organizational goals. Is one design demonstratively better than another? Is objectivity and telling the truth a shared value?
To answer these questions you must identify, understand, describe, and prioritize goals and values. What would happen if your goals weren’t met? Can you live with a negotiated compromise solution? Will the other parties agree to a solution that doesn’t give them everything they want?
Mutually exposing goals makes negotiation easier. Though, without open sharing it is still possible to use EC by subtly facilitating a discovery process. It is important to consider that sometimes openly sharing one’s goals may not be possible or desirable. There may be hidden agendas and motivations. Cultural norms may not support such openness. There are trust and personality issues.
Addressing the Wants
Knowing the goals, attention goes from Needs to Wants. Wants are about the way to achieve the goals and get what you need. For example, in projects a key goal is to satisfy stakeholders’ expectations. There are several ways to do that and there are often conflicting views on which is best.
If one way is as good as another, what does it matter which you choose? Flip a coin. Decision made. Can you and the others give up getting what you want if you get what you need? If one way is best, what makes it so? What are the criteria for deciding? Who will decide and how and when will they do it? Will they rely on emotional rhetoric, hierarchy, or analysis?
A collaborative approach makes resolving conflicts a game that you can both learn from and enjoy while you find an optimal resolution and promote healthy ongoing relationships.
Relationship health is an often-overlooked benefit of collaborative decision making. “Don’t burn bridges” is good advice. Winning is great but if you are not playing the long game, you are likely to have a Pyrrhic victory. You win but at a price that is so costly that victory is tantamount to defeat.
For example, you or your team win an argument by undermining and alienating another team that you must work with to implement the decision or collaborate on future projects. How will that affect the organization’s goals? You may think you will never see your opponents again, but you never know if you will encounter one of them in an interview for a job you have applied for.
Less likely to be overlooked is the benefit of finding an optimal solution, whether it is a blend of elements from alternatives or choosing a demonstrably more effective outcome. Of course, there is no guarantee. But if people commit to an analytical process, collective intelligence and multiple perspectives should result in higher quality decisions.
Taking It Home
Assess your personal approach to conflict resolution, disagreements, and decision making? Assess your team’s and organization’s approach? Is there room for improvement?
Share this article to start a conversation as the first step in adopting a collaborative approach and adapting it to your situation.
There are many references for EC, Wikipedia is a good place to start for further information. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evaporating_Cloud
 Scheinkopf, Lisa J. Thinking for a change: Putting the TOC thinking processes to use. CRC Press, 2002.