Dave Snowden

On navigating conflict

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Interesting session today on the role of art in achieving change. I have long observed that one of the audiences that has the most difficulty in understanding some of the implications of complexity is people of good will, seeking to do good. They understandably want people to have shared aims, trust each other, have aligned interests and so on, it’s a worthy aim. I confess that it took me the best part of a decade to understand that such a belief system is problematic in a complex system; and by implication a problem in achieving any scalable change. There are also paradoxical understandings of the role of conflict in enabling any type of progress. Working with contradictory understandings of what is happening and what should happen is a matter of practicality. Too much and no progress is made, too little and nothing new will happen. As someone said in the room this morning some of the greatest art works have emerged from conflict, even inter-personal conflict or tension.

Now the group is a good one and the discussions are interesting (with conflict) so it’s making me think. As a part of that I finally managed to summarise a flow of actions to move forward from the present without first achiving alignment. So I offer this, while in the workshop, before lunch for comment.

  1. It is less important for people to know where they want to go than to know where they are.   So you should start by focusing on agreeing a description of the present without analysis, without attributing cause; note I do not say blame.
  2. For everything that can not be agreed, you look at defining the different perspectives that exist and testing those perspectives for coherence and if necessary recording accusations of blame, especifficly if they are deeply held.   If they are incoherent you have to look at the degree to which they are entrenched; if deeply then you can’t change them they are part of what is.
  3. Now we get people to agree on what they don’t want, and focus on those agreements.   Agreeing who we don’t like and what we don’t want is easier and more constructive than the opposite.   Those areas then become the focus of interventions, possible on a safe-to-fail basis.
  4. We then identify coherent needs and also unarticulated needs which justify experimentation.  If you can resolve unarticulated needs with existing capability then you change the landscape of problem definition.
  5. Anything which doesn’t fit into the above is too hard, and other than in a crisis you leave it for the moment.  By solving the negatives the positive willl often work itself out as new potential emerges.   Also by working together to disrupt things we dislike, we come to understand each other and to a degree trust each other.

Now tomorrow I’ll pick this up and talk about the role and morality of individual change in this field.