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December 14. 2014 8:50PM

Other lessons from the fair — managing conflict


 


BOB BATCHELER 

I love the Deerfield Fair! Funnel cakes, lobster rolls and bacon on a stick! What’s not to love! Plus I found a great metaphor to illustrate some of the ways in which people respond to change in last month’s column.

I was fascinated by two other events at the fair — the tractor pull and the demolition derby — which also provide rich metaphors for how organizations deal with conflict.

In the tractor pull, competitors driving trucks or tractors pull very heavy sleds as far as they can. As they pull the sled, the mechanics of the sled cause the effort to increase. The winner is the competitor in each class who pulls the heaviest sled the longest distance.

In the demolition derby, the competitors warily circle one another in cars destined for the scrap heap, trying to disable the other competitors’ cars by deliberately ramming them. The last car still running is declared the winner.

So how does this relate to managing conflict within a high-growth business?

Conflict must be managed proactively

The most important part of managing conflict is the establishment of a collaborative culture and alignment around positive core values. Note that when conflict arises, it is too late to establish these values; they must already be in place through long, patient effort. In both the tractor pull and demolition derby, there has to be agreement around the rules and objectives before the event begins.

Conflict is essential

A collaborative culture does NOT mean that conflict does not arise. Conflict is the arena in which ideas are tested and refined. A collaborative culture puts boundaries on conflict in that it must never become personal. In a demolition derby, it is against the rules to aim for the other drivers’ door!

Conflict is just one tool by which a collaborative culture tests ideas and arrives at a better solution by which the entire team achieves more. In the tractor pull, drivers can measure themselves against their past performance, as well as other competitors, driving everyone to achieve more.

Without conflict, a team is prone to groupthink, where very few new ideas are generated and the ones that do arise are not thoroughly examined or tested. Without any conflict, a team would be like a demolition derby in which everyone just seeks to avoid getting hit. Nothing really happens until somebody slams into someone else!

Conflict can be toxic

In the absence of positive core values and a collaborative culture, conflict can degrade into a dog-eat-dog competitive effort, where one person or group wins at the expense of all the others. There is no sense of the group — and each of the participants — all achieving more.

It begins to look an awful lot like the demolition derby, where one person or group wins and everyone else loses, generating a lot of noise and chaos, but at the end of the day, there’s just a lot of going around in circles, a bunch of banged up scrap metal, and one lone victor hobbling around the arena.

A final observation about conflict

One of my greatest sources of pride about Newforma is that we have an incredible team of smart, extraordinarily capable people at every level who are strongly aligned around a shared set of core values. That serves us very well in most of the decisions we have to make.

Occasionally, however, we are faced with an important decision on which key stakeholders just cannot come to agreement. If I sense that positions are beginning to harden and we are crossing over to unproductive conflict, I have learned to push the team to seek alternate solutions.

If smart, open-minded people, united by a common desire to do the right thing, cannot come to agreement, it tells me that we still have not found the optimal course of action. In every case, when we have stepped back from any potentially entrenched positions and sought alternate solutions, we have always come to a better solution. The options are rarely binary; find a better path!

Who knows? Maybe the path to greater satisfaction and achievement is to give up the tractor pull and the demolition derby, and take up drag racing!

I look forward to hearing from you about this article. Please contact me directly at babatcheler@newforma.com.

Bob Batcheler is executive vice president of strategy and a co-founder of Newforma (newforma.com), a Manchester-based developer of project information management software for architects, engineers, builders and facility owners. A civil engineer, Batcheler previously worked at Softdesk and Autodesk. Batcheler and two of his partners were recognized by the New Hampshire High Tech Council as the 2014 Entrepreneurs of the Year.


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