Focus of attention in a complex system

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complex_network.jpg We would like to be able to address and resolve all of the conflicts which arise for us. Sometimes a conflict appears to be too complex or confusing and we can't figure out what to do. This may be because we have focused our attention on the part of the system which is most troublesome and are ignoring the part of the system where we have the biggest opportunities for transformation.

At a recent presentation on Creative Conflict Resolution I invited participants to name current conflicts in their lives which we could use as case examples to display the concepts we considered in the workshop. There were two women who came to the presentation specifically because of an issue arising for them in the context of their work for a large non-profit institution in their role as managers of a cadre of volunteers for the non-profit.

Some of the volunteers have worked for the institution for a great many years and have a great sense of identity and satisfaction from their efforts supporting a mission they believe in. However, the specific role that the volunteers have played in supporting the mission has become less and less effective as the needs of the public have changed. The bosses (Board and Executives) recognized this shift in what the public was asking for and hired and authorized these new managers to reshape the role the volunteers play so as to be more effective. The managers designed a new protocol and trained the volunteers in this altered function but found that the volunteers resisted this shift in their activities on behalf of the institution. The managers then found other resources--some new volunteers and some paid staff--to test the new protocol and found clear evidence that it more effectively met the needs of the public.

The volunteers were upset. They were losing their status in the institution as other newcomers were brought in and as their prior role was given smaller status. The managers recognized the importance of retaining the support and loyalty of the volunteers and went to great lengths to hear their concerns and to find new ways for them to serve and to be honored for their service. The volunteers were not to be comforted by the managers. They began to write letters to the bosses to demand that their old roles be reinstated and that these new managers be replaced. The bosses responded by telling the managers to do something to satisfy the volunteers so that the letters would stop.

So the question the managers brought to the presentation was, "How can we address the conflict with the volunteers so that they will be satisfied enough that they will remain loyal to the institution and not agitate the bosses?"

For the purposes of discussing this complex system we are going to simplify it to a three party system. There are the volunteers, the managers, and the bosses. The bosses empower the managers to shift the role of the volunteers and the volunteers reject the authority of the managers and go over their heads to relate to the bosses. The bosses would rather not deal with the volunteers and tell the managers to fix it.

The "squeaking wheel" in this scenario is the volunteers. They have the power that comes from large numbers and long history with the institution. The formal power is held by the bosses. They make policy and determine the programs of the institution. The managers only have the power the bosses give them. They are squeezed in the middle. Their attention is on the volunteers as they are the ones making the most noise and their bosses have told them to deal with them.

But the volunteers have already said in effect, "We don't recognize your authority. You are new and don't know what you are doing. We are going over your head." So the managers have very little power in that relationship and, at this point, anything they do in their relationship with the volunteers is going to get them further discounted and will likely further anger the volunteers.

The salient conflict is between the managers and the bosses. The bosses gave them a job to do which they have done well. In keeping with the law of unintended consequences, the improvements to the program have disturbed those who liked it the way it used to be. The managers don't have the power to fix this problem and the volunteers know it. They have correctly identified the bosses as the ones who can address this problem.

The bosses don't want this problem and want the managers to fix it. The managers want to be seen as able to handle the situation as they want the bosses' approval and appreciation. The managers will have to risk the bosses' disapproval by pointing out that the bosses are the only ones in the system with the authority to address the issue.

For the managers then, the central issue is not between them and the volunteers, even though that is where much of the heat is. The central issue is that the bosses have given them a job to do--make the letters stop--without giving them the authority it will take to do that job. The managers will have to say to the bosses, "This problem will not be resolved unless you bring more of your attention to it. We need your help."

Doing this will raise a new conflict for the managers and is the central reason this tactic was not immediately apparent. The managers are proud of their work and want others to see the quality of what they are able to do. They especially want the bosses to see their competency as this increases job security. To go to them and say, "We can't do what you asked," goes against this primary need.

The managers are having an internal conflict. One voice is saying, "We have to be sure the bosses affirm us," and another voice is saying, "We have to tell the bosses that they aren't doing their job." It is always true that the conflicts we have with others are mirrored by our own internal conflicts. The good news is that all we have to do to resolve the interpersonal conflicts is to resolve the intrapersonal ones. In this case the managers have to find a way to approach the bosses which will both invite the bosses to see what they can do to address and resolve this problem with the volunteers and which will make the managers look effective.

Perhaps the managers can go to the bosses with a plan for what the bosses might do. This plan could include an analysis of the options and the likely outcomes. They could leave it to the bosses to choose. This affirms the managers' responsibility for the project--they are doing the research and analysis--but it also recognizes the appropriate role and power of the bosses.

So what first appears to be a conflict with the volunteers can be seen as a conflict with the bosses. The barrier to addressing the conflict with the bosses is an internal conflict which, when resolved, leads to a creative course of action with a high chance of success. This action will create new possibilities and new conflicts which lead to further creative options. And so it goes. 

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