By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin

“So oft in (organizational) wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!”
— John Godfrey Saxe

An appropriate conflict is not a problem. On the contrary, it is the best way for teammates to collaborate and help the team win.

An appropriate conflict arises when team members differ about the best way to pursue their common goal. This may be because, as the proverbial blind men who went to see the elephant, they are touching different parts of the picture. (See poem at the end of the post.)

One of the most difficult challenges for any team is to make decisions with incomplete and decentralized information about costs and benefits. Each team member has some data about his local environment and partial knowledge about how each strategy can affect his or her performance metrics. But no team member has all the relevant data or the full knowledge about how each strategy can affect the team goal.

For example, if you are in sales, you may know that discontinuing a current product will disappoint some customers and produce a loss in revenue, but you don’t know how much can be saved in costs by such decision. If you’re in accounting, you may know that discontinuing a current product will save some costs, but you don’t know how much will be lost in revenue by such decision.

The salesperson and the accountant are touching different parts of the  “elephant.” Only when they integrate their information can they maximize the profits of the organization.

Much as we’d like to think that costs and benefits could be assessed accurately, these variables are not really observable. How much will the organization really save from discontinuing the product depends on factors such as which costs are fixed and which variable–and in what time frames. How much will the organization really lose from discontinuing the product depends on factors such as how many customers will switch to other products, what are the profit margins of those products, and how much will customers not buy from the because of the discontinuation.

Honest, intelligent and well-intended people can disagree about these things, giving rise to an appropriate conflict.

Clean Escalation

Clean escalation means involving a more senior person in the discussion to help integrate the information, bring a more systemic perspective, and make a judgment call if necessary.

Another term for clean escalation is “systemic collaboration,” since both conflicting parties agree that it is best to engage their manager’s help to make a system-optimizing decision.

A clean escalation fulfills the following criteria:

  1. Both parties understand one another and come together to the manager with a shared narrative and a shared objective. For example, “Discontinuing Product X entails tradeoffs that are hard for us to evaluate. One of us believes that the savings outweigh the losses; the other has the opposite view. We’d like to explain the two arguments and ask for your help in evaluating what would be the best way to proceed given that we both want to maximize the profits of the organization.”
  2. Each party advocates for his or her point of view respecting the other. For example, the finance person will explain why he believes it would be best to discontinue the product recognizing the assumptions and inferences that lead him to such conclusion. The salesperson will explain why she believes it would be best to keep the product recognizing the assumptions and inferences that lead her to such conclusion.
  3. The two parties may present alternatives that involve relaxing some constraints outside of their control, but within the control of the manager. For example, they could argue that if Product Y were to be reengineered to include some of the features of product X, discontinuing product X would be a clear win for the company, but that they can’t evaluate the costs of this reengineering.

A clean escalation doesn’t guarantee the right decision, but it produces a more intelligent process that strengthens relationships and helps everybody feel appreciated as valuable contributors.

In this video, you can find out more about how clean escalation helps resolve organizational conflicts as one team.

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