Posted on July 04, 2018 by anstice communications
I recently had the opportunity to speak to staff and clients at Anstice Communications about my forthcoming book on executive decision-making in complex conflicts—“complex” in the sense that the outcome is impossible to forecast. For this blog, I’ll recap the points that seemed to resonate best with the group. I’m going to assume that it was the content they enjoyed and not just the amazing wine and food the folks at Anstice always seems have in good supply.
Just so you know where I’m coming from, I want you to win. Anyone dealing with complex conflicts deserves to be able to put their best foot forward, and this post will give you some things to consider along the way. Below are four important elements to winning in a complex conflict.
Plan for Impact
First of all, you will need to grapple with the idea that we succeed to the level that others allow. You may figure this out too late by the time you’re in a complex conflict, but there are always going to be people in your way when you’re accomplishing something big. If you plan for how whatever you’re doing is going to impact others as much as you plan to do the thing itself, you’re going to have a much better chance of succeeding. When you plan something big, you need to plan for the human environment you’ll be stepping into. Pipeline companies, for example, are starting to figure that out now. The key is going to be getting them to include the squishy human element in their strategic planning, right next to all the engineering, operational and financial folks—few of whom are professionally equipped to do it on their own.
Know What You Can Control
Next, only try to control that which can be controlled. When we navigate a complex conflict, human nature pushes us to make sense of the complexity as soon as possible. You need to ignore that voice because it will only cause you trouble. This voice looks for shortcuts that oversimplify the situation through stereotyping others or putting inconvenient facts in a separate box. Those shortcuts make getting to a workable solution impossible, and they only perpetuate the conflict. They might feel good for a while, but they’re not your friend. The science behind my research tells us that complex conflicts behave very much like other complex natural systems. A great example is a murmuration of starlings or a school of fish who all act as one undulating mass. Nobody is in control, and you never know where they’re going to go. They don’t know themselves, so they’re just reacting to the ones nearest to them. Similarly, complex conflicts cannot be controlled—but they can be influenced.
Design Patterns of Interaction
The way to influence a complex conflict is to design new patterns of interaction between the parties involved. Back to our school of fish example: If you can change how each individual fish chooses to react to its immediate neighbours, the entire behaviour of the school will change. That’s the only way to solve a complex conflict—by changing how people interact with each other. More specifically, you need to find the participants that actually matter and shake up their interactions. In any conflict, there are people who are material and people who are just influencers. Ignore the influencers and focus on the material parties, at least at first. For example, we focus on environmental groups in most pipeline conficts, but they’re only influencers. They have no real power. Those with power are those who can make the conflict go away at any given time, and they need to be your focus. Then you create coalitions and find ways to get the influencers who may have some common ground together and rally around those with actual power. This is the hard part, of course, but you’re never going to get to a solution if you’re paying attention to mere influencers.
Implement A Persuasion Strategy
Lastly, you need to be persuasive once you have designed new patterns of interaction. The best idea in the world will not be helpful if you are not able to persuade those involved to do what you want them to. Refer back to point number one. A persuasion strategy can take any number of forms, and that’s where you want to rely on folks like Anstice to help out. But, again, you can’t get anywhere helpful if you skip step number three and focus on where the true power lies. Otherwise, you’re sending yourself and your advisors on a wild goose chase.
It’s more complicated than this, but only in terms of detail. If you can get comfortable with the idea that the human environment is mission-critical, that you can’t control the uncontrollable, that you need to focus on where the true power is, and that you need to be very persuasive along the way, then you’re going to be in a much better place to win.
Dr. Mark Szabo is a strategic communications advisor with global brand experience in a wide range of industries including the energy sector, combining academic rigour with 20+ years in the trenches. His unique value-add is the ability to effectively mobilize people in complex and challenging environments and conflicts, by creating compelling experiences that capture hearts and minds. His book on executive decision making in complex conflicts is currently under review by Oxford University Press.