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Project Management, Negotiation and Conflict Resolution

Learn some Conflict Resolution techniques to channel the energy of conflict into constructive disagreement, and an open exchange of ideas.

In a previous post, I’ve mentioned that a critical element of collaborative design is to manage the detected conflicts and particularly the impacts once they are resolved.

If you knew me in High School, you would know that I was not the most extroverted and articulate person, and – having grown up in Brazil — I’d say I tick all the stereotype boxes of being passionate and emotional and avoid conflict. However — after living and working in USA, China and Germany and being in contact with so many different cultures — I’ve seen first hand what happens when conflict arises and we don’t deal with it: we end up bottling it up, and you guess where that can lead us! So, I thought I need to get better at this if I want to help others!

I’ve been trying to avoid writing this article for a long time since:

  1. I don’t consider myself an expert on negotiation nor conflict resolution,
  2. I don’t want to sound like the “negotiations” on my projects are perfect, and
  3. If conflict resolution was easy, we wouldn’t be seeing issues like the War in Ukraine, the polarization of our world and political views, and so many other symptoms of lack of love and listening.

In this post, you’ll learn some negotiation and conflict resolution techniques to channel the energy of conflict into productive interaction, that is, constructive disagreement, and an open exchange of ideas, and learning from different points of view.

These best practices are based on things I’ve learned the hard way, the behavior I’m trying to model, and what I’m coaching the participants of a Strategy Multiplication Program I’m running at SAP SuccessFactors; most of practices are neither intuitive, nor easy to implement, but they should — at least — get some great conversations started in our teams.

TL;DR

  • When left to chance — it’s only natural that teams will stray from vision and goals. Helping teams paddle in the same direction requires not only good vision and goals, but also leadership, and intentional facilitation.
  • Like it or not, all teams are potentially dysfunctional. This is inevitable because they are made up of fallible, imperfect human beings
  • Conflict arises in every team, but psychological safety makes it possible to channel that energy into productive interaction, that is, constructive disagreement, and an open exchange of ideas, and learning from different points of view.
  • Think of conflict as a continuum. On one end: there’s artificial harmony with no conflict at all. On the other end, there are mean-spirited, personal attacks. In the exact middle of that continuum there is a line where conflict goes from constructive to destructive or vice versa (depending which direction you’re going).
  • The single most important thing you can do to improve communication between you and your stakeholders is to improve those relationships, earn trust, and establish rapport.
  • At some point in the decision making process, negotiations have been made, conflicts have been addressed, we have shared vison and goals, and we know what we should do. We have clear intention, but that is not the same as doing it. Without action, the value of the best alternative is nothing more than potential value. Converting potential value into real value requires action.
  • Without commitment, advice giving is merely the expression of opinions. Without action, the value potential in a decision cannot be realised.

Project Management and the Need of Facilitation

No matter what kind of organization, team structure, or project types you’ve worked on, you’ve probably had experienced problems working with teams, such as:

  • drifting focus
  • misunderstood communications
  • uneven participation
  • Conflict
  • struggles for power and control
  • difficulties reaching consensus
  • frustrations with obtaining commitment to follow up action.

This is not by ill-intent: Patrick Lencioni posits that making a team high performing – i.e. high-functioning, collaborative, cohesive, aspiring, engaging – requires self-discipline, courage and stamina (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2011).

In a previous post, I’ve argued that teams fall into all kinds of traps while collaborating. It’s been my experience that — left to chance — it’s only natural that teams will stray from vision and goals. Helping teams paddle in the same direction requires not only good vision and goals, but also leadership, and intentional facilitation.

Facilitation is a deceptively familiar word, because it sounds like something you know, but means different things in different workplaces. For the purposes of this conversation, a definition of facilitation consists of two things (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018):

  • Facilitation is an explicitly designated role for managing conflict. That role is filled by a single individual, or multiple individuals when you have multiple small groups, with each group having its own facilitator.
  • Facilitators create a productive pattern of conversation, built on divergence and convergence. This pattern encourages tangents, but also manages tangents to direct the conversation toward decisions.
photo of people near wooden table
Learn more about how to become a skilled facilitator (Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com)

Project Management and Negotiation

In a collaborative environment, Design is a process of negotiating among disciplines. Solutions are not only based on purely technical problem solving criteria. They also result from compromises between designers: solutions are negotiated (Bucciarelli, 1988). Therefore, it is important to establish common ground and negotiation mechanisms in order to manage the integration of multiple perspectives in design (Détienne, 2006).

Given the collaboration required to generate shared understandingconflicts can emerge from disagreements between designers and other stakeholders about proposed designs. Hence, a critical element of collaborative design is to manage the detected conflicts and particularly the impacts once they are resolved (Ouertani, 2008).

I’ve noticed in my own experience — but also observing how junior designers conduct themselves — is that we usually tend to bargain over positions (e.g.: “from a user experience perspective, this works best because….”), thinking that if we bring enough knowledge to the table or make strong enough arguments, designers would convince the team about the way to move forward. This idea of Bargaining over Positions (through persuasion) comes with shortcomings that we are – more often than not – not even aware of since most of us were not trained with the emotional intelligence it takes to deal with conflict in a healthy way. We’ll come back to bargaining over positions later on this article.

We can only change two things: our own minds and our own behavior.

Benson, B., Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement (2019)

Meyer again brings clarity also on way persuading might prove to be difficult in trans-cultural teams (Meyer, E., “Why versus How: The Art of Persuasion in a Multicultural World” in The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, 2014):

  • some cultures tend to be Concept-first: individuals have been trained to first develop the theory or complex concept before presenting a fact, statement or opinion)
  • while others tend to be Application-first: individuals are trained to begin with a fact, statement, or opinion and later add concept to back up or explain the conclusion as necessary.
"Persuading” axis in Erin Meyer's Culture Map: on the left we have the cultures that tend to engage on persuasion from a Concept-First Perspective (e.g.: Italy, France, Spain); on the Right, we have the cultures that tend engage on persuasion from an Application-First perspective (e.g.: Australia, Canada, US).
“Persuading” in The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (Meyer, E., 2014)

Avoid Negotiation over Positions

As we argue our position, we often fail to question one crucial assumption upon which our whole stance in the conversation is build: I am right, you are wrong. This simple assumption causes endless grief (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations, 2011).

Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values. They are not about what the contract states, but what the contract means.

Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations (2011)

The important question to explore during difficult conversations are not about who is right and who is wrong, but about interpretation and judgment. Determining who is right or wrong is a dead end (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations, 2011).

Moving away from the truth assumption frees us to shift our purpose from proving we are right to understanding the perceptions, interpretations, and values of both sides. It allows to move away from delivering messages and toward asking questions, exploring how each person is making sense of the world. And to offer our views as perceptions, interpretations and values — not as “truth.”

Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations (2011)

From that perspective, another challenge that arises while negotiating comes from the fact that the way most negotiation strategies fail because they start arguing over positions (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Arguing over positions produces unwise outcomes: we tend to lock ourselves in those positions. The more you clarify your position and defend it against attacks, the more committed you become to it. The more you try to convince “the other side” of the impossibility of changing your position, the more difficult it becomes to do so.
  • Arguing over positions endangers an ongoing relationship: positional bargaining becomes a contest of will. Each side tries through sheer willpower to force the other to change its position. Anger and resentment often results as one side sees itself bending to the rigid will of the other while its own legitimate concerns go undressed. Positional bargaining thus strains and sometimes shatters the relationship between the parties.
  • Where there are many parties, positional bargaining is even worse: although it is convenient to discuss in terms of two persons, you and the “other side”, in fact, almost every negotiation involves more than two persons. The more people involved in the negotiation, the more serious the drawbacks of positional bargaining.
  • Being nice is no answer: many people recognise the high costs of hard positional bargaining, particularly on the parties and their relationship. They hope to avoid them by following a more gentle style of negotiation. Instead of seeing the other side as adversaries, they prefer to see them as friends. Rather than emphasising a goal of victory, they emphasise the necessity of reaching agreement. In a soft negotiating game the standard move are to make offers and concessions, to trust the other side, to be friendly, and to yield as necessary to avoid confrontation. Pursuing a soft and friendly form of positional bargaining makes you vulnerable to someone who plays a hard game.
Conflict Management Styles” in Organizational Behavior and Human Relations
William Ury's 'The walk from
Watch William Ury’s The walk from “no” to “yes” talk at TED

One approach to get more constructive conflict handling is to change the game from arguing over positions to negotiating on merits (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Principled: participants are problem-solvers whose goal is a wise outcomes reached efficiently and amicable.
  • Separate the people from the problem: be soft on the people, hard on the problem; proceed independent of trust
  • Focus on interests, not positions: explore interests, avoid having a bottom line.
  • Invent options for mutual gain: generate alternatives to choose from; decide later.
  • Insist on using objective criteria: try to reach a result based on stands independent of will; reason and be open to reason; yield to principle, not pressure.

As negotiators, different people will have different interests and styles of communication. Different things may be persuasive to them, and they may have different ways of making decisions. How should we accommodate such similarities and differences in negotiating with different people? Here are some suggested guidelines (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Get in step. In any negotiation it is highly desirable to be sensitive to the values, perceptions, concerns, norms of behavior, and mood of those with whom you are dealing. Adapt your behavior accordingly. If you are negotiating with someone, it is that person whom you are trying to affect. The more successfully you can get in step with that person’s way of thinking, the more likely you are to be able to work out an agreement.
  • Adapt this general advice to the specific situation. These guidelines offer general advice. It will not apply in the same way in every circumstance with every person. But the basic propositions are generally applicable. Absent a compelling reason to do otherwise, we advise crafting your specific approach to every negotiation around them. The best way to implement these general principles will depend on the specific context. Consider where you are, with whom you are dealing, customs of the industry, past experience with this negotiator, and so on, in crafting an approach to fit the situation.
  • Pay attention to differences of belief and custom, but avoid stereotyping individuals. Different groups and places have different customs and beliefs. Know and respect them, but beware of making assumptions about individuals. The attitudes, interests, and other characteristics of an individual are often quite different from those of a group to which they may belong. Making assumptions about someone based on their group characteristics is insulting, as well as factually risky. It denies that person his or her individuality. We do not assume that our beliefs and habits are dictated by the groups in which we happen to fit; to imply as much of others is demeaning. Each of us is affected by myriad aspects of our environment and upbringing, our culture and group identity, but in no individually predictable way.
  • Question your assumptions; listen actively. Whatever assumption you make about others -whether you assume they are just like you or totally different – question it. Be open to learning that they are quite unlike what you expected. The wide variations among cultures provide clues as to the kind of differences for which you should be looking, but remember that all of us have special interests and qualities that do not fit any standard mold.

Moving away from bargaining positions to negotiate on merits is pretty much aligned with two important skills that designers must master:

  • Create Great Choices: the effectiveness of the team in making good decision depends on their ability of generating alternatives.
  • Facilitate Critique: when well done, critique focuses on analysing design choices against a product’s objective.

Better Negotiation through Creating Choices

It is crucial that designers engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions.

Design is about exploring and comparing merits of alternatives. There is not just one path, and at any given time or any given question, there may be numerous different alternatives being considered, only one of which will eventually find itself in the product.

Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design (2007)

Without multiple solutions to any question, the process is highly vulnerable. Without the ability to see all the work at once, spread out, relationships will be missed, and the conversation and subsequent designs will suffer. (Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design, 2007).

Your decision can be no better than your best alternative.

“Create imaginative alternatives” in Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions, Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H. (2015)

Professor Roger Martin from The Rotman School of Management advocates to work from a place of creating choices through what he calls integrative thinking

“…the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each.”

“Integrative thinking” in The opposable mind: How successful leaders win through integrative thinking, Martin, R. L. (2009)

Martin explored this approach in depth in the book Creating Great Choices, co-authored with Jennifer Riel (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017):

  • Articulate the models. Understand the problem and opposing models — even, or perhaps especially, those that make us deeply uncomfortable — more deeply.
  • Examine the models. Define the points of tension, assumptions, and cause-and-effect forces, with the aim of getting to an articulation of the core value that each model provides. The intention is not to help you choose between these opposing models, but to help you use the opposing models to create a great new, choice.
  • Explore new possibilities. Play with the pathways to integration. Go back to the problem you have been working on. Take a step back and ask, how might I break my initial problem apart, along a meaningful dividing line, so that I could apply one of my models to one part of the problem, and the other model to the other part of the problem? What might a new answer look like in these conditions?
  • Assess the prototype: Concretely define each possibility, more comprehensively articulating how might it work. Understand the logic of the possibilities, asking under what conditions each possibility would be a winning integrative solution. Design and conduct test for each possibility, generating needed data over time.
aisle architecture building business
Learn more about how to create great choices in Strategy and the Art of Creating Choices (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Better Negotiation through Critique

Facilitating critiques becomes extremely important to get teams to converge from the alternatives generated during ideas. Critique – when well done – focuses on analysing design choices against a product’s objective. It also provides teams with additional benefits, acting as a mechanism for building shared vocabulary, finding relevant consensus, and driving effective iteration. The structure of a good critique looks like this (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

  • It identifies a specific aspect of the idea or a decision in the design being analyzed.
  • It relates that aspect or decision to an objective or best practice.
  • It describes how and why the aspect or decision works to support or not support the objective or best practice.

A critique is an awkward conversation. If you’re seeking a critique, it puts you in a very vulnerable place. Its difficult to hear what’s wrong with our work. However, if you’re providing a critique, you may have spent less time with the work and be reacting to your instincts, without a structured goal for what the feedback is supposed to accomplish. The more a critique’s goal is structured, the less painful and more productive that time will be (Hoffman, K. M., Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

It is better to have your preliminary work critiqued by your colleagues while there is still time to do something about it — no matter how difficult the criticism might be — than to have the finished project torn apart by strangers in public.

Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design (2007)

Because critique – when done well – focuses on analysing design choices against a product’s objective, it also provides team with additional benefits, acting as a mechanism for building shared vocabulary, finding relevant consensus, and driving effective iteration (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

The ultimate goal for teams that are interested in improving conversations and collaboration with critique is not to add one more tool or type of meeting to their ever-growing toolbox. Instead, it’s to change the way we talk about what we’ve designed regardless of the type of meeting or conversation we’re in.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design (2015)
letters on wooden cubes
Influencing larger decisions that shape strategy starts with the smallest of decisions, including how to facilitate and incorporate feedback to designs to drive product vision forward (Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com)

Prefer Negotiation over Outcomes

In traditional planning, the solution provider commits to delivering specified deliverables (the scope) at a specified cost within a given time frame. This approach doesn’t work when requirement are volatile because it locks all parties into predetermined specifications that are likely to be outdated by the time the product is delivered (Podeswa, H., The Agile Guide to Business Analysis and Planning: From Strategic Plan to Continuous Value Delivery, 2021).

Requirements assume we know exactly what we need to build. Ideally, they come from engineering rigor. But in software, they usually don’t have the rigor behind them. Still, they are taken at face value based on their author’s credibility or organizational title.

Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J.,  Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience (2021)

Instead of focusing on predetermined deliverables, agile enterprises focus on desired outcomes, such as increased revenues and increased customer loyalty (Podeswa, H., The Agile Guide to Business Analysis and Planning: From Strategic Plan to Continuous Value Delivery, 2021).

The key distinction with this strategy over traditional roadmaps is that we are giving the team the autonomy to find the best solution. If they are truly a continuous-discovery team, the product trio has a depth of customer and technology knowledge, giving them an advantage when it comes to making decisions about how to solve specific problems. (Torres, T., Continuous Discovery Habits, 2021).

Additionally, this strategy leaves room for doubt (Torres, T., Continuous Discovery Habits, 2021):

  • A fixed roadmap communicates false certainty. It says we know these are the right features to build, even though we know from experience their impact will likely fall short.
  • An outcome communicates uncertainty. It says, we know we need this problem solved, but we don’t know the best way to solve it. It gives the product trio the latitude they need to explore and pivot when needed.

If the product trio finds flaws with their initial solution, they can quickly shift to a new idea, often trying several before they ultimately find what will drive the desired outcome.

Torres, T., Continuous Discovery Habits (2021).

Finally, managing by outcomes communicates to the team how they should be measuring success. A clear outcome helps a team align around the work they should be prioritizing, it helps them choose the right customer opportunities to address, and it helps them measure the impact of their experiments. Without a clear outcome, discovery work can be never-ending, fruitless, and frustrating (Torres, T., Continuous Discovery Habits, 2021).

If you’re wondering what I mean by outcomes, we’ll talk about it when we get to clarity around outcome sight Jobs-to-be-Done

multiracial colleagues shaking hands at work
Learn how to use Jobs to be Done to facilitate two-way negotiations between leadership and product teams that allows for managing by outcomes (Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com)

Project Management and Conflict

Like it or not, all teams are potentially dysfunctional. This is inevitable because they are made up of fallible, imperfect human beings. From the basketball coach to the executive suite, politics and confusion are more the rule than the exception. However, facing dysfunction and focusing on teamwork is particularly critical at the top of an organization because the executive team sets the tone for how all employees work with one another (Lencioni, P. M., “A Case for Teamwork” in Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010).

It’s not uncommon to blame yourself or blame others when conflict happens in meetings. In the immortal words of Admiral Akbar: it’s a trap! Moving past blame allows you to make peace, meet needs, or have difficult conversations that if avoided, end up adding more serious, standing conflict to the working relationship. (Hoffman, K. M., Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

Fear of Personal Conflict

How do you avoid the conflict getting personal? The answer has a few angles. First, based on my experience working with hundreds of executive teams, it is extremely rare that people attack each other openly on a personal level (Lencioni, P. M., “A Case for Teamwork” in Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010).

Think of conflict as a continuum. On one end: there’s artificial harmony with no conflict at all. On the other end, there are mean-spirited, personal attacks. In the exact middle of that continuum there is a line where conflict goes from constructive to destructive or vice versa (depending which direction you’re going).

Lencioni, P. M., “A Case for Teamwork” in Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team (2010)

Theoretically, the best place on the continuum is close to the middle, just left of the dividing line: this is the point a Team is having every bit of constructive conflict possible, without stepping over the line into destructive territory (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010).

In reality, however, this isn’t possible. Even the best teams will rarely but occasionally step over the line. And that’s not only Ok, it actually can be a good thing, as long as they are committed to working through it: when a team recovers from an incident of destructive conflict, it builds confidence that it can survive such an event in the future, which builds trust. This is not unlike a husband and wife recovering from a big argument and developing closer ties and greater confidence in their relationship as a result (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010).

Conflict and the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team

Fortunately, there is hope. Counter to conventional wisdom, the causes of dysfunction are both identifiable and curable. The first step toward reducing politics and confusion within your team is to understand that there are five dysfunctions to contend with, and address each that applies, one by one.(Lencioni, P. M., “A Case for Teamwork” in Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010):

  • Absence of trust (i.e. unwilling to be vulnerable within the group). Members of great teams trust one another on a fundamental, emotional level, and they are comfortable being vulnerable with each other about their weaknesses, mistakes, fears and behaviours. They get to a point where they can be completely open with one another, without filters, This is essential because…
  • Fear of conflict (i.e. seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate) … teams that trust one another are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decisions that are key to the organization’s success in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions. This is important because…
  • Lack of commitment (i.e. feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organization) .. Teams that engage in unfiltered conflict are able to achieve genuine buy-in around important decision, even when various members of the team disagree. That’s because they ensure that all opinions and ideas are on the table and considered, giving the confidence to team members that no stone has been left unturned.
  • Avoidance of accountability (i.e. ducking the responsibility to call peers, superiors on counterproductive behaviours which sets low standards) … teams that commit to decisions and standards of performance do not hesitate to hold one another accountable for adhering to those decisions and standards. This matters because…
  • Inattention to results (i.e. focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success) … teams that trust one another, engage in conflict, commit to decision, and hold one another accountable are very likely to set aside their individual needs and agendas
The journey of every high performing team starts with addressing the first dysfunctions of teams: absence of trust (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013)

The Inevitability of Conflict

Let’s not sugar-coat it: even among the best teams, conflict is always at least a little uncomfortable. No matter how clear everyone is that the conflict they are engaging is focused on issues — not personalities — it is inevitable that they will feel under some degree of personal attack (Lencioni, P. M., “Overcoming Dysfunction #2” in Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010).

But there’s no reason to avoid conflict. In fact, if team members are not making one another uncomfortable sometimes, if they’re never pounding one another outside their emotional comfort zones during discussions, then it is extremely likely that they’re not making the best decisions for the organization.

Lencioni, P. M., “Overcoming Dysfunction #2” in Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010

When Lencioni talks about conflict on a team, he is talking about productive, ideological conflict: passionate, unfiltered debate around issues of importance to the team. Any team that wants to maximise its effectiveness needs to learn to do this, and doing so can only happen if vulnerability-based trust exists (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013). We will come back to trust later.

Conflict is natural to organizations and can never be completely eliminated. If not managed properly, conflict can be dysfunctional and lead to undesirable consequences, such as hostility, lack of cooperation, and even violence. When managed effectively, conflict can stimulate creativity, innovation, and change.

Baron, E., The Book of Management: the ten essential skills for achieving high performance (2010)

While conflict is natural, we need to step up to the plate with a non-judgemental attitude towards our team, always expecting the best and –– in a counter intuitive way –– not anticipate conflicts.

Conflict Resolution

If I can be very upfront with you, I’m no expert on conflict resolution! Being born in Brazil comes with all the stereotypes of a relaxed culture, being extroverted and expressive, passionate and emotional, but I’d say that — in general — we tend to avoid conflict (and avoid dealing with with). So when conflict arises and we don’t deal with it, we end up bottling it up, and you guess where that can lead us!

So what comes next is some best practices I have been trying to incorporate in my practice; some of them are neither intuitive, nor easy to implement, but they should — at least — get some great conversations going in your team.

Conflict Resolution through Rituals

Conflicts are an inevitable part of work life-as are failures. Both can bring intense emotions and possibly destroy relationships. Rituals can be strategies to navigate conflicts, to manage anger and frustration, and to move towards a more constructive relationship. Ideally, they can structure spaces for more candid, transparent communication-as well as personal resilience to deal with mistakes. Here are a few rituals that help address conflicts (Ozenc, K., & Hagan, M., Rituals for work, 2019):

  • Burn the Argument: is a ritual to move people past a conflict that flared up. After a conflict has arisen among team members, have them release their emotional energy by symbolically burning their feelings. Instead of hoping that the people will be able to move on after the argument have them explicitly write down what they were arguing about, and what their feelings are. Make sure that they hear each other’s point of view. That have them put these written-down accounts and emotions into a shredder or have them tear them up. They combine both of their scraps together, and burn them in a heatproof container.
  • Elephant, Dead, Fish, Vomit: When you want to encourage reciprocal, honest conversations among team members across an organization, try the ritual Elephant, Dead Fish, Vomit. This is a way to interrupt a meeting that doesn’t seem to be “honest” enough, and to structure a conversation to deal with issues that people cannot seem to get over, or that they’re struggling to express to each other Anyone can say the phrase “Elephant, dead fish, and vomit.” Then everyone in the meeting gets permission to speak their mind in a safe environment, about big things in the room that are not being addressed (elephants); about things that are long past but still haunting the group (dead fish); and about things people just need to vent out without real goals (vomit).

Conflict Resolution through Clarity of Vision

Have you ever been part of a team that didn’t seem to make any progress? Maybe the group had plenty of talent, resources and opportunities, and team members got along, but the group never went anywhere? If you have, there is a strong possibility that the situation was caused by the lack of vision (Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork, 2013).

Great vision precedes great achievement. Every team needs a compelling vision to give it direction. A team without vision is, at worst, purposeless. At best, it is subject to the personal (and sometimes selfish) agendas of its various teammates.

Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork (2013)

In the second post of this series, I’ve mentioned that I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.

As the agendas work against each other, the team’s energy and drive drain away.

Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork (2013)

Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood — as my colleague Anton Fischer usually says — it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.

A global study conducted in 2012 involving 300,000 employees found that just over half did not really understand the basics of their organizations’ strategies (Zook, C., & Allen, J., Repeatability, 2012). Given the effort applied to strategy development, there is a massive disconnect here. The opportunity to reconnect a firm with its strategy lies in how the strategy is communicated and understood (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016).

Six Strategic Questions, adapted from "Strategy Blueprint" in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020).
Six Strategic Questions, adapted from “Strategy Blueprint” in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020).

The first thing most people do when they hear the word “vision” in a business context is yawn. That’s because vision are vague, unclear, and – frankly – nothing to get excited about. Well-designed visions should be rally cries for action, invention and innovation (Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K., Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation, 2016)

The beauty of a shared vision is that it motivates and unites people: it acts as the product’s true north, facilitates collaboration, and provides continuity in an ever-changing world (Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 2017).

Shared vision creates the common language that helps you work together.

Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design (2019)

Designers should advocate for the importance of vision and facilitate the creation of product visions that explain a strategy’s complex connection and express the product’s future intended destination. (Fish, L., Kiekbusch, S., “The State of the Designer” in The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, 2020).

beach bench boardwalk bridge
Learn more about creating product vision in “The Importance of Vision” (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Conflict Resolution through Clarity of Outcomes

I’ve seen too many teams that a lot of their decisions seem to be driven by the question “What can we implement with least effort” or “What are we able to implement”, not by the question “what brings value to the user”.

From a user-centered perspective, the most crucial pivot that needs to happen in the conversation between designers and business stakeholders is the framing of value:

  • Business value
  • User value
  • Value to designers (sense of self-realisation? Did I impact someone’s life in a positive way?)

The mistake I’ve seen many designers make is to look at prioritisation discussion as a zero-sum game: our user centered design tools set may have focused too much on needs of the user, at the expense of business needs and technological constraints.

While in the past designers would concentrate on enhancing desirability, the emerging strategic role of designers means they have to balance desirability, feasibility and viability simultaneously. Designers need to expand their profiles and master a whole new set of strategic practices.”

“Strategic Designers: Capital T-shaped professionals” in Strategic Design (Calabretta et al., 2016)

To understand the risk and uncertainty of your idea you need to ask: “What are all the things that need to be true for this idea to work?” This will allow you to identify all three types of hypotheses underlying a business idea: desirabilityfeasibility, and viability (Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing business ideas, 2020):

  • Desirability (do they want this?) relates to the risk that the market a business is targeting is too small; that too few customers want the value proposition; or that the company can’t reach, acquire, and retain targeted customers.
  • Feasibility (Can we do this?) relates to the risk that a business can’t manage, scale, or get access to key resources (technology, IP, brand, etc.). This is isn’t just technical feasibility; we also look need to look at overall regulatory, policy, and governance that would prevent you from making your solution a success.
  • Viability (Should we do this?) relates to the risk that a business cannot generate more revenue than costs (revenue stream and cost stream). While customers may want your solution (desirable) and you can build it (feasible), perhaps there’s not enough of a market for it or people won’t pay enough for it.

Part of the challenge is that people’s decisions and actions are seemingly unpredictable. Resting your growth strategy on fuzzy concepts like “needs” and “empathy” is daunting. While psychology and other fields (including design) have precise definitions of human needs, business does not. As a result, risk-averse organizations struggle to grasp the customer perspective and align to it.

Kalbach, J., Jobs to be Done Playbook (2020)

In a previous post I mentioned that — when the team engages in endless discussions around which customer/user problems we should be focusing on — Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) becomes a unit of analysis that helps teams have facilitated discussions around finding ways to remove (or at least reduce) subjectivity while assessing value.

Jobs to be Done (JTBD) is a new way to think about the innovation process. Three key tenets define this approach (Ulwick, A. W., What customers want, 2005):

  • Customers buy products and services to help them get jobs done. In our study of new and existing markets we find that customers (both people and companies) have “jobs” with functional dimensions to them that arise regularly and need to get done. When customers become aware of such a job, they look around for a product or service that will help them get the job done. We know, for example, that people buy mowers so they can cut their lawns; and they buy insurance to limit their financial risks; Corn farmers, to take another example, buy corn seed, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers to help them grow corn. Carpenters buy circular saws to cut wood. Virtually all products and services are acquired to help get a job done.
  • Customers use a set of metrics (performance measures) to judge how well a job is getting done and how a product performs. Just as companies use metrics to measure the output quality of a business process, customers use metrics to measure success in getting a job done. Customers have these metrics in their minds, but they seldom articulate them, and companies rarely understand them. We call these metrics the customers’ desired outcomes. They are the fundamental measures of performance inherent to the execution of a specific job. When cutting wood with a circular saw, carpenters may judge products for their ability to minimize the likelihood of losing sight of the cut line, the time it takes to adjust the depth of the blade, or the frequency of kickbacks. Only when all the metrics for a given job are well satisfied are customers able to execute the job perfectly. Ironically, these metrics are overlooked in the customer-driven world because they are not revealed by listening to the “voice of the customer.
  • These customer metrics make possible the systematic and predictable creation of breakthrough products and services. With the proper inputs in hand, companies dramatically improve their ability to execute all other downstream activities in the innovation process, including their ability to identify opportunities for growth, segment markets, conduct competitive analysis, generate and evaluate ideas, communicate value to customers, and measure customer satisfaction.

In the outcome-driven paradigm the focus is not on the customer, it is on the job: the job is the unit of analysis. When companies focus on helping the customer get a job done faster, more conveniently, and less expensively than before, they are more likely to create products and services that the customer wants.

Ulwick, A. W., What customers want (2005)

At its core, the concept of JTBD is straightforward focus on people’s objectives independent of the means used to accomplish them. Through this lens, JTBD offers a structured way of understanding customer needs, helping to predict better how customers might act in the future (Kalbach, J. Jobs to be Done Playbook, 2020).

Jobs to be Done work as a great common exchange currency between leadership, designers, product managers and developers by helping us discuss problems instead of solutions (Photo by Blue Bird on Pexels.com)

Conflict Resolution through Clarity of Priorities

What slows progress and wastes the most time on projects is confusion about what the goals are or which things should come before which other things. Many miscommunications and missteps happen because person A assumed one priority (make it faster), and person B assumed another (make it more stable). This is true for programmers, testers, marketers, and entire teams of people. If these conflicts can be avoided, more time can be spent actually progressing toward the project goals (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).

Unfortunately, this sense of priorities might not always be clear with teams, either because leaders have not defined priorities, or priorities have not be clearly communicated.

A few reasons why not every leader practices prioritizing (Maxwell, J. C., The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you, 2007):

  • When we are busy, we naturally believe that we are achieving. Activity is not necessarily accomplishment.
  • Prioritizing requires leaders to continually think ahead, to know what is important, to know what’s next, to see how everything relates to the overall vision.
  • Prioritizing causes us to do things that are at the least uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful.

Leaders understand that Activity is not necessarily Accomplishment.

“Law of Priorities” in The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you , Maxwell, J. C. (2007).

The goal with prioritization is to determine what to complete next in order to get maximum value in the shortest amount of time and to avoid multi-tasking due to competing priorities (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017).

Priorities Make Things Happen.

Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management (2008)

There are a few things you should ask yourself and/or the team when we keep coming revisiting and renegotiating the scope of work (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017):

  • What is your prioritisation policy and how is it visualised? How does each and every item of work that has prioritised helps get us closer to our vision and achieve our goals?
  • How will you signal when work has been prioritised and is ready to be worked on? In other words — where is your line of commitment? How do people know which work to pull?
  • How will we visually distinguish between higher priorities and lower priority work?

If you have priorities in place, you can always ask questions in any discussion that reframe the argument around a more useful primary consideration. This refreshes everyone’s sense of what success is, visibly dividing the universe into two piles: things that are important and things that are nice, but not important. Here are some sample questions (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • If there are multiple problems, which one is most important?
  • How does this problem relate to or impact our goals?
  • What is the simplest way to fix this that will allow us to meet our goals?
pen calendar to do checklist
Learn more about Prioritisation in Strategy and Prioritisation (Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com)

Conflict Resolution through Clarity of Roles and Responsibilities

Execution is the result of thousands of decisions made every day by employees acting according to the information they have and their own self-interest. A compilation of the work with over 250 about how companies learn to execute more effectively identified four fundamental building blocks executives can use to influence those actions—clarifying decision rights, designing information flows, aligning motivators, and making changes to structure (Neilson, G., Martin, K., Powers, E., The Secrets to Successful Strategy Execution, 2008):

  • who owns each decision
  • who must provide input
  • who is ultimately accountable for the results
  • how results are defined

Good decision making depends on assigning clear and specific roles. This sounds simple enough, but many companies struggle to make decisions because lots of people feel accountable—or no one does. 

Rogers, P., & Blenko, M., Who has the D? How clear decision roles enhance organizational performance (2006)
The 17 Fundamental Traits of Organizational Effectiveness
The 17 Fundamental Traits of Organizational Effectiveness: The research from Neilson, G., Martin, K., Powers, E. (drawn from more than 26,000 people in 31 companies ) have distilled the traits that make organizations effective at implementing strategy.

The most important step in unclogging decision-making bottlenecks is assigning clear roles and responsibilities. Good decision makers recognize which decisions really matter to performance. They think through who should recommend a particular path, who needs to agree, who should have input, who has ultimate responsibility for making the decision, and who is accountable for follow-through. They make the process routine. The result: better coordination and quicker response times (Rogers, P., & Blenko, M., Who has the D? How clear decision roles enhance organizational performance, 2006).

Coordinating roles and responsibilities is inherently more challenging when you’re not in the same physical location. If you don’t check in frequently, your colleagues in other locations will lose track of what you’re doing (and vice-versa). But sending multiple messages to multiple recipients on multiple channels can create infusion and make it hard to tack progress. To organize who does what take the following steps (Harvard Business Review, Virtual Collaboration, 2016):

  • Simplify the work: streamline things as much as you can, and agree on who ultimately own each task. If you aren’t in a position to influence these decisions, talk one-on-one with the people you’ll be working with most directly to make sure that you’re all on the same page. If necessary press your boss for more direction — and suggest the changes you would like to see.
  • Have each person share a “role card”: Itemise important information such as the person’s title, general responsibilities, work schedule, close collaborators, and the key tasks, decisions, deliverables, and milestones the individual is attached to. These “cards” could be individual documents, email, or entries in a shared work or message board. Review the inform briefly during a meeting to clear up any misunderstanding.
  • Agree on protocols: guidelines are needed for important activities such as group decisions, tracking progress, and sharing updates. Consider these questions: Who is the group needs to be involved in each of these activities? Which communication technologies will you use for each of these activities? If you lack the authority to lead this conversation, pose these questions to your supervisor with respect to yourself: What activities do I need to be involved in? How should I share updates during a meeting? I’d like to…

The most successful companies use simple tools that help them recognize potential bottlenecks and think through decision roles and responsibilities with each change in the business environment.

Rogers, P., & Blenko, M., Who has the D? How clear decision roles enhance organizational performance (2006)

Conflict Resolution and Difficult Conversations

We all know this. We go round and round on the same questions—Should I raise this? Or should I keep it to myself? Why is it so difficult to decide whether to avoid or to confront? Because at some level we know the truth (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most, 2011):

  • If we try to avoid the problem, we’ll feel taken advantage of, our feelings will fester! We’ll wonder why we don’t stick up to ourselves, and we’ll rob the other person the opportunity to improve things.
  • But if we confront the problem, things might get even worse. We may be rejected or attacked; we might hurt the other person in ways we didn’t intend; and the relationship might suffer.

While conflict is natural, we need to step up to the plate with a non-judgemental attitude towards our team, always expecting the best and –– in a counter intuitive way –– not anticipate conflicts.

Someone who anticipates conflict in meetings is the most likely person to initiate the conflict which they expect.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design  (2015)

Each difficult conversation is really three conversations (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most, 2011):

  1. The “What Happened?” Conversation. Most difficult conversation involve disagreement about what has happened or what should happen. What said what and who did what? Who’s right, who meant what, who’s to blame?
  2. The Feelings Conversation. Every difficult conversation also asks and answer questions about feelings. Are my feelings valid? Appropriate? Should I acknowledge or deny them? Put them on the table or check them at the door? What do I do about the other person’s feelings? What if they are angry or hurt?
  3. The Identity Conversation. This is the conversation we each have with ourselves about what this situation means to us. We conduct an internal debate over whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good person or bad, worthy of love or unlovable. What impact might it have on our self-image and self-esteem, or future and our well-being? Our answers to these questions determine in large part whether we feel “balanced” during the conversation, or we feel off-center and anxious.

Every difficult conversation involves grappling with these Three Conversations, so engaging successfully requires learning to operate effectively in each of the three realms. Managing all three simultaneously may seem hard, but it’s easier than facing the consequences of engaging difficult conversation blindly (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most, 2011).

Confrontational versus Avoids Confrontation

Some cultures embrace confrontation while others avoid it. This scale looks a lot like the scale showing the directness of negative feedback, though with some differences, such as Sweden being further to the left (direct) on negative feedback and further to the right (avoiding confrontation) on disagreeing (Meyer, E., The Culture Map, 2014)

Disagreeing: Confrontational versus Avoids Confrontation (Meyer, E., The Culture Map, 2014)

Avoid Verbal Conflict

Heated conversations or situations tend to bring out the worst in people. Whether that means taking over a conversation, raising voices, cutting others off, or simply re-stating ideas as their own. There are a lot of things that people can do—intentionally or unintentionally—to make others more angry or upset. So when you step into a forum that feels heated, keep yourself in check. You never want to be seen as the person who can’t keep their cool (Harned, B., Project Management for Humans, 2017).

That said, there is nothing worse than being cut off—or flat out ignored—when you’re trying to make a point. Check out these quick tips to make sure that you can stand your ground on the meeting or debate battlefield (Harned, B., Project Management for Humans, 2017):

  • Set expectations with the room at the top of the meeting. Simply say, “I know this conversation is a big one, and we all have things to say. Let’s please show each other respect and not step on each others’ toes. We’ll all have time to make our points.” This will hopefully put some people on notice and allow others to get a word in.
  • Set expectations again when you’re about to make your point (particularly if it’s a long one). Start off by saying, “I have a few things to say, so please give me the time to make my point. I am more than open to your ideas, but I just want to be sure I can state my thoughts in full.”
  • If you’re really intent on making a point, keep talking. Sometimes someone needs to be talked over to understand that what they are doing is rude. Or maybe you’ll stop briefly and say, “Sorry, I am not done. Let me finish.” You’ll know what works when you’re in the moment—you just can’t be bashful.
  • Let’s say you let that person talk over you. Hear them out. Understand what they are saying and use that information to ask them questions, or even make or strengthen your own point. When you are polite and it shows, you win, no matter what. Why is that? People will be more inclined to work with you, listen to you, and show you the respect you deserve. Meeting room bullies never get that respect.
  • Be ready to give in. Sometimes these arguments are not worth battling over. You can always follow up with someone separately to express your concerns or share more ideas in full. True professionals can sense when the time and place are right, so use that instinct here.

There is No Way Around Difficult Conversations

Face it: no one likes a difficult conversation. But if you’re managing people, you will have to face them head-on. Follow this advice to ensure that you’re handling them well (Harned, B., Project Management for Humans, 2017):

  • Be sure to understand the issue first and set your personal feelings aside.
  • Have empathy for the people involved and do what you can to understand their points of view.
  • Think through the outcomes of the conversation before conducting it.
  • Respect privacy and preserve the personal relationships.
  • Use thoughtful language.
  • Have a follow-up plan for your meeting.

Conflict Resolution and Trust

Trust relationships are vital to the way we do business today. In fact, the level of trust in business relationships, whether internal with employees or colleagues or external with clients and partners, is the greatest determinant of success (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C., The trusted advisor, 2021).

The single most important thing you can do to improve communication between you and your stakeholders is to improve those relationships, earn trust, and establish rapport.

“Stakeholders are People Too” in Articulating Design Decisions, Greever, T. (2020)

The challenge is having a conceptual framework and analytical way of evaluating and understanding trust. Without the proper framework for evaluating trust, there’s no actionable way to improve our trustworthiness (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021).

Trust must be earned and deserved. You must do something to give the other people the evidence on which they can base their decision on whether to trust you. You must be willing to give in order to get.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C., The trusted advisor (2021)

While teams that trust each other are more likely to engage in healthy conflict, this is not to say that some teams that lack trust don’t argue. It’s just that their arguments are often destructive because they are laced with politics, pride, and competition, rather than humble pursuit of truth. When people who don’t trust one another engage in passionate debate, they are trying to win the argument. They aren’t usually listening to the other person’s ideas and then reconsidering their point of view; they are figuring out how to manipulate the conversation to get what they want. Or  worse yet, they are not even arguing with the other person face-to-face, but venting about them in the hallways after the meeting is over (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2011).

Defining Trust

Trust is not the ability of team to predict one another’s behaviors because they’ve known each other for a long time: even the most dysfunctional teams — or families for that matter — can learn to forecast one another’s words and actions based on observable patterns over a long period of time (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2011).

The type of trust you feel for one person is very different from the type of trust you feel for another. The difference can be complex, but one simple distinction is between two forms of trust: cognitive trust and affective trust (Meyer, E., The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business, 2014): 

  • Cognitive trust is based on the confidence you feel on another person’s accomplishments, skills, and reliability.
  • Affective trust arises from feeling of emotional closeness, empathy or friendship.

This distinction gives the two dimensions of the Trusting scale: Task-based (cognitive trust) and Relationship-based (affective trust).

Task-based Trust versus Relationship-based Trust (Meyer, E., The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business, 2014)

So how do you build trusts in a Task-based culture?

  • Keep professional and personal lives separate.
  • Show your best version at all time when in the company of business partners.
  • Communicate clearly, concisely, and succinctly.
  • Don’t spend too much time on non-professional events (e.g. no long lunches).
  • Follow through on commitments and report on your accomplishments.
  • Don’t assume a deep conversation is indicative of a deep relationship.

Here are Meyer’s tips for building affective trust, in a Relationship-based culture:

  • Build on common interests. If you don’t have apparent ones, look harder.
  • Personal and professional blend in. In social situations, don’t be afraid to get personal and share stories about your life. Be authentic.
  • Join the crowd. When your team is relaxing and letting go, join in.
  • Consider meals carefully: lunch and dinners are the way to build the relationship. Sharing meals and drinks (particularly alcoholic drinks in some cultures) is what can get you a new business partner.
  • Use intros to get connected with people (if you want them to answer your emails).

When it comes to teams, trust is about vulnerability. Team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open — even exposed — to one another around their failures, weaknesses and even fears. Now, if this is beginning to sound like some get-naked, touchy-feely theory, rest assured is not that is nothing of the sort

Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team (2013)

Vulnerability-based trust is predicated on the simple — and practical — idea that people who aren’t afraid to admit the truth about themselves are not going to engage in the kind of political behavior that wastes everyone’s time and energy, and more importantly, makes accomplishments of results an unlikely scenario (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013)

The journey of every high performing team starts with addressing the absence of trust (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013)

Vulnerability-based trust is predicated on the simple — and practical — idea that people who aren’t afraid to admit the truth about themselves are not going to engage in the kind of political behavior that wastes everyone’s time and energy, and more importantly, makes accomplishments of results an unlikely scenario.

Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013

If building trust is important, then how does one becomes a trusted advisor?

Based on all the challenges of I’ve listed so far one framework I have found very useful to systematically grow your influence that works really well in combination with the Servant Leadership model is the Trusted Advisor.

Building Trust

As David Maister puts it in The Trusted Advisor, “there is no greater source of distrust than advisors who appear to be more interested in themselves than in trying to be of service to the client.  We must work hard to show that our self-orientation is under control.”

You might be an employee of a company, but I noticed that having a “consultant” mindset while dealing with Stakeholders helped me better define the role I want to have in the relationship, and helped me think about the way I could help them as “clients”.

This is yet another challenge for designers: putting clients’ interests in front of their own can be really hard for them because they’re always under huge pressure to deliver what their stakeholder believe is needed (e.g.: “create a beautiful interface for this product that I’ve designed without a designers’ input”). 

The Trusted Advisor understands that there will be times when the client’s best interests would be better served by spending more time in the problem space at risk on impacting their self-imposed deadlines and constraints. 

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C., The trusted advisor (2021)

The Trust Equation is now the cornerstone of our practice: a deconstructive, analytical model of trustworthiness that can be easily understood and used to help yourself and your organization. The Trust Equation uses four objective variables to measure trustworthiness. These four variables are best described as: CredibilityReliabilityIntimacy and Self-Orientation (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021).

The Trust Equation in The trusted advisor (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C., (2021)

Let’s dig into each variable a bit more (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021):

  • Credibility has to do with the words we speak. In a sentence we might say, “I can trust what she says about intellectual property; she’s very credible on the subject.”
  • Reliability has to do with actions. We might say, “If he says he’ll deliver the product tomorrow, I trust him, because he’s dependable.”
  • Intimacy refers to the safety or security that we feel when entrusting someone with something. We might say, “I can trust her with that information; she’s never violated my confidentiality before, and she would never embarrass me.”
  • Self-orientation refers to the person’s focus. In particular, whether the person’s focus is primarily on him or herself, or on the other person. We might say, “I can’t trust him on this deal — I don’t think he cares enough about me, he’s focused on what he gets out of it.” Or more commonly, “I don’t trust him — I think he’s too concerned about how he’s appearing, so he’s not really paying attention.”

There are two important things about building trust. First, it has to do with keeping one’s self interest in check, and, second trust can be won or lost very rapidly (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021).

group of people sitting in front of table
Learn about about Strategy and Stakeholder Management (Photo by Rebrand Cities on Pexels.com

Vulnerability-based Trust

Vulnerability-based trust is predicated on the simple — and practical — idea that people who aren’t afraid to admit the truth about themselves are not going to engage in the kind of political behavior that wastes everyone’s time and energy, and more importantly, makes accomplishments of results an unlikely scenario (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013).

Brené Brown asked thousands of people to describe vulnerability to us over the years, and these are a few of the answers that directly pierce the emotion: the first date after my divorce, talking about race with my team, trying to get pregnant after my second miscarriage, starting my own business, watching my child leave for college, apologising to a colleague about how I spoke to him in a meeting, waiting for the doctor to call back, giving feedback, getting feedback, getting fired, firing someone. Across all of her data, there is not a shred of empirical evidence that vulnerability is weakness (Brown, B., Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts, 2018):

  • Are vulnerable experiences easy? No
  • Can they make us feel anxious and uncertain? Yes
  • Do they make us want to self-protect? Always
  • Does showing up for these experiences with a whole heart and no armour require courage? Absolutely 

Here are ten behaviors and cultural issues that leaders identified as getting in our way to building trust in organizations across the world (Brown, B., Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts, 2018):

  1. We avoid tough conversations, including giving honest, productive feedback. Some leaders attributed this to a lack of courage, lack of skills, and — shockingly — a more than half talked about the a cultural norm of being “nice and polite” that is leveraged as an excuse to avoid tough conversations. Evidence points to this behavior leading to lack of clarity, diminishing trust. And engagement, and an increase in problematic behavior — including passive-aggressiveness, talking behind people’s backs, pervasive back-channel communication (or “the meeting after the meeting”), gossip, and the “dirty yes” (when I say yes to your fader but no behind your back).
  2. Rather than spending a reasonable amount of time proactively acknowledging and addressing the fears and feeling that show up during change and upheaval, we spend an unreasonable amount of time management problematic behaviors.
  3. Diminishing trust caused by lack of connection and empathy.
  4. Not enough people are taking smart risks or creating and sharing bold ideas to meet changing demands and the insatiable need for innovation. When people are afraid of being put down or ridiculed for trying something and failing — or even for putting forward a radical idea — the best you can expect is status quo and group thinking.
  5. We get stuck and defined by setback, disappointments and failures, so instead of spending resources on clean up to ensure that consumers, stakeholders, or internal processes are made whole, we are spending too much time and energy reassuring team members who are question their contribution and value.
  6. Too much shame and blame, not enough accountability.
  7. People are opting out of vital conversations about diversity and inclusivity because they fear looking wrong, saying something wrong, or being wrong. Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us always from meaningful and lasting conversation.
  8. When something goes wrong, individuals and teams are rushing into ineffective or unsustainable solutions rather than staying with the problem identification and solving. When we fix the wrong thing for the wrong reason, the same problems continue to surface. It’s only costly and demoralizing.
  9. Organizational values are gauzy and assessed in terms of aspirations rather than actual behaviors that can be taught, measure, and evaluated.
  10. Perfectionism and fear are keeping people from learning and growing.

Conflict Resolution and Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. That one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes (Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization, 2018).

Conflict arises in every team, but psychological safety makes it possible to channel that energy into productive interaction, that is, constructive disagreement, and an open exchange of ideas, and learning from different points of view.

Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization (2018)

Creating psychological safety is not about being nice to each other or reducing performance standards, but rather about creating a culture of openness where teammates can share learning, be direct, take risks, admit they “screwed up,” and are willing to ask for help when they’re in over their head (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021).

Psychological Safety and Business Performance” in How to create a learning organization (Rudolfsson, F., 2017)

Psychological Safety, Beliefs and Emotional Needs

People will often say they agree when they don’t agree. They will say they are on board when they are not on board. They will say that they don’t understand something when they understand it perfectly well. In a top-down organisational hierarchy, “I don’t understand” is a polite way of saying “No, I’m not going to do this.” Why does this dynamic play out time and time again, in organizations large and small, all over the world? It has to do with emotion. Feelings. We’ve all heard the saying “leave your emotions at the door.” It’s a common saying in business. Be objective. Focus on the facts. Nice idea. Unfortunately, it’s not possible (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).

Why do people say they agree when they don’t agree? Because somebody asked them to leave their emotions at the door, that’s why. And when they left the meeting, they put their emotions back on and went back to work (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).

Reason does not get people to act. Emotion is what causes people to act.

Gray, D., Liminal thinking (2016)
Actions and Results are observable; beliefs less so (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016)

When a meeting, for example, is not a safe place for people to share their feelings and their needs, you will get people saying one thing and doing another, a story we have all seen play out hundreds of times (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).

Psychological Safety and Non-Violent Communication

Psychologists generally agree that conflicts need to be dealt with, but the question is: how? The American psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg (1934-2015) developed the idea of nonviolent communication based on the premise that it’s not what you say, but how you say it.

He distinguishes between speaking snappishly, “language of the jackal”, and speaking from the heart, “language of the giraffe” (giraffes have the biggest heart of any land animal). The language of the jackal causes the speaker to feel superior and the person being addressed to feel bad (Krogerus, M., & Tschappeler, R., The communication book, 2018).

Let me tell you that — from my experience of having lived in four different continents — people underestimate how the way we say things in one culture might be perceived as passive-agressiveness (or sometimes straight out aggressive) in other cultures.

Typical examples of jackal language (Krogerus, M., & Tschappeler, R., The communication book, 2018):

  • Analysis: ‘That’s wrong, because…
  • Criticism: ‘The mistake you made was that you…
  • Interpretations: ‘You do that because..
  • Appraisals: ‘You’re smart/lazy, you’re right/wrong…
  • Threats: ‘If you don’t do it immediately, I’ll have to…

Statements like these are ‘desires in disguise’. Because we have not learned to ask for something politely or to express our wishes constructively, we resort to aggressive language. And aggression leads to counter-aggression or sub-
missive subjugation.

Krogerus, M., & Tschappeler, R., The communication book (2018)

There are two basic skills in using Non-Violent Communication (NVC): expressing yourself and hearing others. Expressing yourself is intended to help the other person understand you without them hearing any blame (the language of the Giraffe”). Let’s say you find yourself in a simple workplace conflict: someone has drunk the decaffeinated coffee you brewed. The four components of expressing yourself under NVC are (Hoffman, K. M., Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018):

  • Observations without judgments: “When I see you drinking my decaf” would be better than “When you steal the coffee.”
  • Feelings without attribution: “I’m frustrated” is better than “You’re annoying me deliberately.”
  • Express universal human needs: “I’d like some consideration” is more appropriate than “That is my coffee to consume.”
  • Make a clear, positive request, not a negative demand: “Could you ask me when you want some?” is more productive than “You cannot have it.”

5 Behaviours to Foster Psychological Safety

Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need for autonomy and contribution. You feel safe and are given the opportunity and role clarity to use your skills and abilities to make a difference. Here are five behaviors that will help you foster contributor safety on your team (Clark, T. R., The 4 stages of psychological safety: Defining the path to inclusion and innovation, 2020):

  1. Shift from Tell to Ask: A leader’s coaching continuum ranges from telling at one end to asking at the other. A good leader uses the entire continuum. Too much telling breeds dependency and learned helplessness. Shift as much as you can to the ask end. Lead through questions more than answers.
  2. Ask People What They Think: It may be true that the four most beautiful words you can ask a team member are, “What do you think?” Those four simple words invite contribution and increased confidence in the process. Never use these words gratuitously, when you don’t really mean it. At the same time, don’t move to a decision or action without asking, even when you think you know the right answer.
  3. Celebrate Small Wins: Certainly accomplishment is its own reward, but receiving genuine recognition from your peers makes it all the sweeter. As a leader, recognize the successes of your team quickly. Never delay and never resent the opportunity. Celebrate the successes of others and show genuine excitement for their accomplishments.
  4. Help Other People See Their Strengths: Many team members deliver mediocre performance because they don’t realize their strengths. They don’t know themselves. When someone points out their contribution and strengths, they’re shocked and accelerate to a higher level of performance. Do that. Identify the hidden or undervalued strengths that your team members have and bring them to their attention. Ignite the desire to contribute more.
  5. Approach Failure with Curiosity Rather Than Criticism: When performance falters, it means our inputs are not producing the outputs we expected. Something is wrong in what we thought the cause and effect relationship would be. When this happens, approach your team members with curiosity rather than criticism. Engage them in a root cause analysis. This will often diffuse the stress and emotional tension that often surrounds poor performance.
woman placing her finger between her lips
Learn more about how psychological safety is a prerequisite for creating shared understanding (Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com)

Moving from Conflict to Commitment

At some point in the decision making process, we know what we should do. We have clear intention, but that is not the same as doing it. Without action, the value of the best alternative is nothing more than potential value. Converting potential value into real value requires action (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Without commitment, advice giving is merely the expression of opinions.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C., “Commitment” in  The trusted advisor, 2021

A decision isn’t truly made until resources have been irrevocably allocated to its execution. And so we need a commitment to action and a mental shift from thinking to doing. Thinking and doing are two different mindsets. If a business decision has the potential for a bad outcome (as nearly all of them do), a leader may hesitate in committing to action. It can even be financially risky for a decision maker to act, since incentives  generally reward good outcomes rather than good decisions (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Without action, the value potential in a decision cannot be realised.

Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions (2016)

Shifting between the two mindsets is especially difficult for action-oriented executives and managers who get bogged down in the complexities and uncertainties of decision making. But to be effective, they must learn to operate in both modes — deciding and executing-moving rapidly from one mode to the other. A shift from thought to action can be emotional and may require courage. It also requires a shift from one skill set to another. During the decision-making process, conflict is fuel, encouraging a diverse set of alternatives, values, and perspectives. When it is time for action, we need alignment and buy-in (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Overcoming the Lack of Commitment

Like trust, conflict is important not in and of itself but because it enables a team to overcome the next dysfunction: the lack of commitment. Teams that commit to decisions and standards do so because they know how to embrace two separate but related concepts: buy-in and clarity. (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010).

The lack of clarity and/or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions they can stick to.

Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team (2010)

And like the other four dysfunctions, commitment needs to be correctly defined before it can be achieved. Buy-in is the achievement of honest emotional support; Clarity is the removal of assumptions and ambiguity from a situation (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010):

  • Buy-In: Commitment is not consensus. Waiting for everyone on a team to agree intellectually on a decision is a good recipe for mediocrity, delay, and frustration, which is why it amazes me that so many of the teams I work with still seem determined to achieve consensus. Ironically, commitment is something of the opposite. It’s about a  group of intelligent, driven individuals buying in to a decision precisely when they don’t naturally agree. In other words, it’s the ability to defy a lack of consensus.
  • Clarity: Unfortunately, even when teams master this ability to “disagree and commit” (this is something that the folks at Intel came up with years ago), they can still fail to benefit from their commitment. That’s because many teams fail to achieve clarity and alignment around a decision. Instead, they make well-intentioned assumptions about what they’ve agreed to, and they end up creating confusion and frustration among employees who wonder whether their leaders are even talking to one another. I’ve seen this happen often and it’s worth describing.
banking business checklist commerce
Learn more about Facilitating Good Decisions (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Commitment through Closure

The question still remains, how do you reach closure in negotiation and conflict handling? We don’t believe there is any one best process, but there are some general principles worth considering (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Think about closure from the beginning. Before you even begin to negotiate, it makes sense to envision what a successful agreement might look like. This will help you figure out what issues will need to be dealt with in the negotiation and what it might take to resolve them. Imagine what it might be like to implement an agreement. What issues would need to be resolved? Then work backward. Ask yourself how the other side might successfully explain and justify an agreement to their constituents. Think about what it will take for you to do the same. Then ask yourself what kind of an agreement would allow you both to say such things. Finally, think about what it might take to persuade the other side- and you-to accept a proposed agreement, rather than continuing to negotiate.
  • Move toward commitment gradually. As the negotiation proceeds and you discuss options and standards for each issue, you should be seeking a consensus proposal that reflects all the points made and meets each side’s interests on that issue as well as possible. If you are as yet unable to reach consensus on a single option, try at least to narrow the range of options under consideration and then go on to another issue. Perhaps a better option or a trade-off possibility will occur later. To encourage brainstorming, it is a good idea to agree explicitly that all commitments are tentative. This will allow you to have some sense of progress during your discussions, while avoiding the inhibiting effect of worrying that every option discussed may be heard as a commitment. Tentative commitments are fine and should not be changed without reason. But make clear that you are not firmly committing yourself to anything until you see the final package.
  • The process of moving toward agreement is seldom linear. Be prepared to move through the list of issues several times, going back and forth between looking at particular issues and the total package. Difficult issues may be revisited frequently or set aside until the end, depending on whether incremental progress seems possible. Along the way, avoid demands or locking in. Instead, offer options and ask for criticism. (“What would you think of an agreement along the lines of this draft? I am not sure I could sell it to my people, but it might be in the ballpark. Could something like this work for you? If not, what would be wrong with it?”)
  • Be persistent in pursuing your interests but not rigid in pursuing any particular solution. One way to be firm without being positional is to separate your interests from ways to meet them. When a proposal is challenged, don’t defend the proposal; rather explain again your underlying interests. Ask if the other side can think of a better way to meet those interests, as well as their own. If there appears to be an irresolvable conflict, ask if there is any reason why one side’s interests should have priority over the other’s. Unless the other side makes a persuasive case for why your thinking is incomplete and should be changed, stick to your analysis. When and if you are persuaded, modify your thinking accordingly, presenting the logic first. (“Well, that’s a good point. One way to measure that factor would be to . . . .”) If you have prepared well, you should have anticipated most arguments the other side may raise and thought through how you think they should affect the results.

Negotiation and Conflict Resolution in Virtual, Distributed or Remote Environments

If you’ve got this far in the article, you’ve probably noticed most of the challenges we’ve address so far are not inherently related to project management, but the complexity of dealing with work collaboration. From that perspective, negotiation and conflict resolution in virtual, distributed or remote environments are just another type of virtual facilitation.

Many people still view telecommuting and geographically separated teams as a kiss-of-death to any hope of good collaboration or communication. But collaboration is a mindset, not a by-product of co-location. So long as that mindset is present, with a few tricks and the right tools, remote team members can contribute to collaborative activities just as well as the teammate sitting in the room with us (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift to working in a virtual space, many companies also lack the skills, knowledge or insight to get the most out of telecommuting and geographically separated teams. The sudden need to adapt working practices to virtual environment means that there has been a steep learning curve, and many are finding it difficult to realise the full potential of virtual meetings (Andersen, H. H., Nelson, I., & Ronex, K., Virtual Facilitation: Create More Engagement and Impact, 2020).

There are many other tools available for remote collaboration, and more being released almost daily. Because of the reality that many coworkers aren’t actually co-located, many companies are looking for making collaboration from separate locations as much like being in the same room as possible. More important than the tools we use, however, is our approach (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

For remote collaboration to work, the individuals involved have to want to make it work.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design (2015)

If you’re part of a team, ideally your team leader will coordinate a conversation around how you will use the tools that you’ve identified. If you’re working in a looser arrangement, it probably doesn’t make sense to work out detailed rules, but you can still take the lead to clarify a few key items (Harvard Business Review, Virtual Collaboration, 2016):

  • Venue: Which interactions belong on the phone, in e-mail, and so on?
  • Availability: How responsive will you be on each of these tools? How will you get in touch if something’s truly sgent?
  • Meetings: Who will set up and lead conference call or host video chats? How will you get the call-in number and handouts in advance? If you’re the only person calling in, who will introduce you? If the whole meeting is virtual, how will all of you identify yourselves when you speak?
  • Version control: How will you make sure that you and your colleagues are working efficiently and without redundancy? When sometime goes wrong, who will be responsible for fixing the problem?
  • Coordination: Which materials or tools do you need to synchronise? Who will set up and manage shared technologies?
  • Sensitive material: How will you safely share and store sensitive or proprietary material?
  • Politeness and privacy: What does good behaviour look like with each of these technologies? For example, can you call a colleague without an appointment? How ill you avoid interrupting each other on a video chat if there is a delay?
top view photo of people discussing
Learn more about how to help improve strategic collaboration while working on Distributed, Remote or Global Teams (Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com)

Reading Recommendation

Andersen, H. H., Nelson, I., & Ronex, K. (2020). Virtual Facilitation: Create More Engagement and Impact. John Wiley & Sons.

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Callahan, S. (2016). Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling. Melbourne, Australia: Pepperberg Press. 

Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety: Defining the path to inclusion and innovation. Richmond, BC, Canada: ReadHowYouWant.com.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A. (2015). Discussing Design (1st ed.). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

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Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (2012). Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in (3rd ed.). London, England: Random House Business Books.

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Gray, D. (2016). Liminal thinking: Create the change you want by changing the way you think. Rosenfeld Media.

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Lencioni, P. M. (2013). The five dysfunctions of a team, enhanced edition: A leadership fable. London, England: Jossey-Bass.

Lencioni, P. M. (2010). Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators (1st ed.). Pages 19-24. London, England: Jossey-Bass.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C. (2021). The trusted advisor. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T. (2021). High-impact tools for teams: 5 Tools to align team members, build trust, and get results fast. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

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Ouertani, M. (2008). Supporting conflict management in collaborative design: An approach to assess engineering change impacts. Computers in Industry (59), 882–893.

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Podeswa, H. (2021). The Agile Guide to Business Analysis and Planning: From Strategic Plan to Continuous Value Delivery. Boston, MA: Addison Wesley.

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Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J. (2016). Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

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By Itamar Medeiros

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as Director of Design Strategy at SAP.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, Itamar has helped truly global companies in several countries (Argentina, Brazil, China, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Mexico, The Netherlands, Poland, The United Arab Emirates, United States, Hong Kong) create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles.

During his 7 years in China, he promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

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