Several years ago I came across a business guru by the name of Eli Goldratt (an eccentric guy), who started a movement called theory of constraints. One of Goldratt’s key insights was that most problems stem from what he calls conflicts. He means something specific when he says conflict, namely: two competing needs that are equally important and valid, but seem diametrically opposed. In my experience, almost any intractable problem is solvable if the conflict can be identified, clearly articulated, and the assumptions around the conflict can be found. In fact, you can diagram these conflicts called “Evaporating Clouds” to help visualize the issue and find the assumptions.
To Zip One’s Jacket or Not To Zip One’s Jacket: Four Year Old Battle Royale
Last winter I had the hardest time getting my son Finnian to zip his jacket. No matter what I did, the boy simply wouldn’t do it, or would unzip the jacket as soon as he was out of my sight. I live in Michigan and it gets cold up here. Jackets are necessary for little boys to stay healthy, even if they think they are invincible. Of course, my assumption was that my child was crazy, illogical, stubborn, and disobedient. If only the child would listen to his all knowing father, this problem would go away. In my business I’m always training my associates about how to identify and dissolve key conflicts to help us perform better and just generally be happier. Maybe it was time I applied this to my personal life. So I did the analysis and got my four year old to explain himself and this time, I really listened to him instead of tuning him out. He had a fascinating rationale for his behavior…and…he was doing the right thing. We both had the goal of staying warm and healthy, my position was obvious: You need to keep your jacket zipped up so you don’t get cold. His position, less obvious, was that he shouldn’t zip up his jacket, lest he get sweaty and catch a cold. What I didn’t realize was that while I thought he could zip up his jacket entirely, it turns out that the jacket was too small and he couldn’t zip it up all the way. He would run around, get sweaty, but then catch a chill because the jacket wasn’t zipped up all the way. By keeping his jacket down, he stayed cold, but never got sweaty, thus never catching a chill from being wet. Wow….not only is this kid not disobedient, but he’s pretty smart! It’s his Dad that needs to eat some humble pie. Suffice to say, we got one of his big brother’s old jackets out of the closet and the problem was solved.
Figure 1: Finnian vs. Dad Jacket Zip Up Conflict
What I’ve learned navigating conflicts and using the conflict cloud:
First, People are good. Finnian wasn’t some crazy illogical four year old, he had actually thought about how to solve his problem and came up with something that was uncomfortable, but worked. Whenever I get to thinking negatively about another human being I stop myself. If my basic assumption is that people are good, but experiencing a conflict, then I need to think constructively about the needs they’re trying to satisfy. Negative thoughts about other people lead to tautologies: Why doesn’t my son zip up his jacket? He’s a disobedient child. Why is he a disobedient child: Because he doesn’t zip up his jacket. Classic tautology. This is an especially effective way to think in organizational life. If your co-worker or associate is not bad, it forces you to take their concerns seriously and really try to understand where they are coming from. It leads to greater harmony with the people in your life. **Caveat, every now and then you run into a person who is totally crazy…you should not try to understand their craziness :)**
Second, every problem can be solved. If I can identify the right conflict and clearly articulate the competing needs, and identify and challenge the assumptions, then I can solve the problem. A good solution will satisfy everyone’s needs and make your dreams come true :). I know it sounds hokey, but I’ve seen it happen in my business that seemingly intractable conflicts between partners or employees can be solved by affirming everyone’s needs and then checking the assumptions behind the conflict. There is always an assumption we can challenge and change to get better results.
Three, solutions are usually exceedingly simple, but not always obvious. People like complexity and our first reaction is to take a complex problem or complex system and add complexity. My experience is that good solutions usually help simplify our thinking and focus action. They are the opposite of overwhelming.