#92 from R&D Innovator Volume , Number April
Resolving Team Conflicts
Dr. Oppenheim is vice president of the Center for Applied Research in Philadelphia and a member of the M Meeting Management Institute's Advisory Board. Ms. Langham is a writer and editor for the institute in Austin, Texas. Founded in by M Corp., the institute awards grants for research and serves as a clearinghouse of information about meeting management and effectiveness.
Conflict is a fact of life in R&D teams. Even when a team shares a goal or a vision, its members may have different ideas about how to achieve it.
We all know two common ways to solve problems: issue a command, or induce a compromise that leaves both sides a bit dissatisfied. In this article, we'd like to propose a superior technique: a transparent, effective type of Strategic Assumptions Analysis. But first, let's examine the interaction of disputes and meetings, to see exactly how problems arise in teams.
When team members meet, they bring an assortment of perspectives, experiences, knowledge, and ideas to the table. Individuals often clash while working together, whether they are generating ideas, arriving at consensus, making decisions, formulating plans, influencing colleagues, or charting progress. According to Minneapolis meeting-management consultant John Johnson, the meeting room is where "battles are won or lost, blood is let, alliances are born, and solutions are hammered out."
A team's style of dealing with conflict will, obviously, affect its productivity. If teams discourage the expression of conflicting views, believing that one must "go along to get along," members will be reluctant to disrupt the harmony that is supposedly necessary. But since creativity is essentially an individual act, papering over disputes can hide or suppress good ideas and unique solutions. At the other extreme, members can find themselves sunk in opposing trenches: if one side confronts or probes a position, the other side reacts defensively, and work grinds to a halt.
The most productive teams are those that can walk a fine line--while relishing differences, they find a way to work through them. Team members regard each other as colleagues and are eager to explore each other's thinking. In these teams, conflicting points of view are hardly a hindrance or a wedge—but rather a spur to superior performance.
For team leaders, the critical question is how to steer conflict into productive channels: how to get team members to embrace differences, and resolve them effectively, or at least with minimum damage. To resolve a conflict, group members must reach consensus. After listening to others' views, they can leave the meeting agreed on a course of action. Even if some members have misgivings, they know they've had a fair hearing and should be willing to support the majority's proposal. Consensus cements the team and mobilizes it to carry out the group decision.
Command and compromise are two of the most commons ways of proceeding in groups that can’t reach a consensus within time constraints, but each method has its obvious limitations.
Meeting-techniques and decision-rules offer an intelligent way to cope with impasse, and they each offer several advantages. They depersonalize disputes, undermines the "us-versus-them" mentality that can stymie the best-intentioned group, and speed up the decision process. And agreeing on a decision rule may be half the battle, because agreeing on a decision rule is often easier than agreeing on the final decision.
The technique we wish to offer R&D teams is an abbreviated form of Strategic Assumptions Analysis, which is fully described by Emshoff and Finel in Sloan Management Review, Spring, .
The analysis begins when each side states its position. Let's assume that a pharmaceutical company R&D team is at odds about a strategy for allocating its research budget. One side wants to pursue promising leads in anti-fungals, while the other side feels that, given the budgetary constraints, anti-bacterials will be more profitable.
Next, each side lists all assumptions underlying its position. Then members step back to examine their beliefs--the ideas and information which led to their present positions. For example, the anti-fungal side might explain: "We have some of the world's best scientists in the field, and the anti-fungals currently on the market are marginally effective because they are hard to administer."
The other side might say, "Our anti-bacterial research group consistently makes better use of investment dollars, and the market for anti-bacterials is huge, so the company stands to make a substantial profit."
Once the assumptions are explicit, the leader breaks the team into groups of three to five, making sure that each group has representatives of both sides of the dispute. This action separates alliances, and members feel less compelled to represent their departments or interests. As members become more invested in the work of the smaller groups, they unload some of their emotional freight, and approach the problem with less passion.
Each sub-group will analyze the assumptions according to truth and importance. They will ask, for each assumption: How certain are we that this is true? and, How important is this assumption to the outcome?
The ensuing dialog usually gives team members insight into the thoughts of their colleagues, because hearing the underpinnings of the other side's assumptions often allows one to rethink a problem.
Suppose the anti-fungal side realizes that market size indeed should play a dominant role in the decision, and the market for even a very good anti-fungal would be quite small compared to that of an anti-bacterial. At the same time, the anti-bacterial side might realize that an innovation in anti-fungals could have greater impact than they thought, because it could lead to breakthroughs in ancillary applications.
When each group feels it has sufficiently analyzed all relevant assumptions, the team reconvenes to review findings; frequently, both sides have reassessed their positions and are near agreement.
How does focusing on the assumptions help the group target the problem? Instead of examining a thousand reasons that support their opposing positions, members focus on a dozen key sub-issues. By analyzing the truth and relevance of assumptions, the precise area of disagreement can be identified—and resolution becomes possible.
Assume that the meeting ends with a decision to pursue anti-fungal research. While the anti-microbial side might be expected to feel some sense of loss or defeat, the Strategic Assumptions Analysis has given them some sense of distance from their starting position. They probably won’t feel that they were wrong, but they might agree that they started with an incomplete picture of the situation.
Get an Outsider
As with most conflict-resolution techniques, Strategic Assumptions Analysis isn’t magic, and it can be done by the team leader. Nevertheless, it works best if led by an outside facilitator.
First, an outside facilitator frees the team leader from having to worry about being fair, so he or she can spend more time listening.
Second, if the team leader is a high-level manager, members can feel intimidated by being in front of "the boss." With an outsider, they can speak candidly.
Third, research shows that meetings are more productive when they are managed by someone who can concentrate on the process while others focus on content. In contrast, R&D team leaders are often researchers themselves, with deep biases or predispositions that can deter a frank analysis of assumptions. As John Johnson says, "it's a bit like having one of the prize fighters serve as referee."
Some teams hire trained outsiders as facilitators, but bringing in a facilitator from another department, so long as he or she is neutral and has no opinion on the content of the discussion, may work as well.
For relatively simple problems, a team can complete a Strategic Assumptions Analysis and reach a decision in one meeting. But for complex problems, or when additional information is needed about an assumption, further meetings might be needed.
Strategic Assumptions Analysis has two more advantages for R&D teams. First, it's straightforward and transparent, and thus team members don't think something is being done to them. Second, it fits their intellectual style--scientists, after all, are accustomed to stepping back, questioning assumptions, and rethinking hypotheses, which is just what happens during the analysis.
A structure helps you think about a problem more effectively. Just as you use the scientific method to solve problems in the research lab, you can use a meeting methodology to solve a problem in the meeting room.