#012 - Beyond "dogs versus cats" in conflicts
Welcome to Issue #012 of The Forcing Function - your guide to delivering the right outcomes for your projects and your users.
✍️ Insights: When conflict arises, don't be resigned to it. Resolve it.
🤔 Made me think: Not having the conflict isn't the way forward either.
👨💻 Worth checking out: The Jonny Decimal system + Changing Room Illusion.
When conflict arises, don't be resigned to it. Resolve it.
"I'm a dog" exclaims my wife as she walks back in.
Doing what all husbands do when confronted with an ambiguous statement from their better halves - lest we land ourselves in hot water with an ill-considered response - I delicately ask her to explain.
She'd just come back from a training course on "leading and influencing meetings". Explaining, the behaviour of cats and dogs can be metaphors for how stakeholders behave.
Dogs are typically more accommodating but are more dependent.
They prioritise relationships, being liked, and feeling comfortable.
Because you look after and care for them, you must be a god.
Cats are typically highly independant and not very accommodating.
They prioritise getting tasks done, being respected, and being challenged.
Because you look after and care for them, they must be a god.
The rough split is that 70% of stakeholders are "dogs" whilst 30% are "cats".
It almost goes without saying that the success of a project is critically dependent on the stakeholders involved. The larger the project, the more stakeholders involved, the greater the diversity of opinions and beliefs on how it should be done. Hence, conflict is not only possible but inevitable.
So how do you get these cats and dogs to play well together?
To resolve the conflict, first understand the conflict
Throughout my business analyst career, I've had to mediate across a variety of stakeholders. Ranging from those providing the frontline service, to senior executives, as well as governmental stakeholders - such as the Bank of England.
One painful lesson I've learnt along the way: to have any chance of resolving the conflict, I need to understand these two aspects about each stakeholder:
What position are they taking?
Why are they taking that position?
There's more than two opposing positions
The cats and dogs is a fun metaphor. You have two positions a stakeholder could take. It's easy to grasp and easy to use when you're starting out.
But it's just the tip of the iceberg.
This framework by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann shows the five positions that a stakeholder can take in response to a conflict. Each position is a "mode" for how they will typically behave and respond.
Now, can you guess which positions dogs and cats fit into?
Answer: Cats are typically in the Compete position whilst dogs are in the Accommodate position.
Doing a greenfield Salesforce (a customer relationship management platform) implementation, this is where I mapped various key stakeholder to.
Compete: Head of Technology
As his preferred solution wasn't chosen, he was out to prove that this solution wasn't fit for purpose.
Collaborate: Project Sponsor
Looking to finally bridge the gap between departments and teams to get that "single view of customer", he wanted the "win-win" scenario for the business.
Avoid: Sales teams
Not wanting their activity to be tracked and their information shared, they hoped that it would fail and go away.
For them, this was another software project to work on and all they needed to know was what to test and when.
Compromise: Project Manager
Taking the middle ground by being moderately assertive and co-operative to find a consensus solution where everyone gains something.
None of these positions are necessarily good or bad.
Whilst the sales teams took the Avoid position to my Salesforce implementation, they took the Compete position when it came to implementing their prospecting solution.
Because they saw Salesforce as a monitoring tool first and foremost. But, for the prospecting solution, they saw it as explicitly helping them win more business if it was implemented exactly as they wanted it.
And why are they taking that position?
Just as important as the position of a stakeholder is why they've chosen that position (e.g. Compete) in the first place.
Part of the reason might be their archetypical style that I wrote about in Issue 10. So, a stakeholder with an Influencing style might tend towards the Collaborate mode. That's because that style is associated with being highly assertive as well as highly cooperative.
Or, perhaps they have a fear that's manifesting itself. This can range from fear of reprisal, fear of being judged, to fear of offending.
Whilst possible reasons are endless, the key is to keep asking questions and keep an open mind. Only then can you peer beyond what they are outwardly signalling to what's inwardly driving their positioning.
Over the years, my tactic to gain a deeper insight into a stakeholder's motivations is to:
Ask them directly - not presuming or asssuming.
Ask those around them (seniors, peers, and juniors) regardless if they are supporters, neutrals, or opponents.
This helps build the fullest picture I can and the best idea of what's driving them.
Positions are not fixed forever
On one project, I was tasked to liaise with the client as my project manager had given up engaging with him. He was antagonistic, micro-managing, and untrusting.
Unquestionably, he was firmly in the Compete position and saw working with us a a zero-sum game.
By taking the two-pronged approach of asking him tactfully but directly and asking those around him, I eventually worked out that he feared being let down again. That was his driver and why he saw working with us as a zero-sum game that he had to win.
Knowing this, by proactively taking steps to assuage his fear, I slowly started to win him over and increase his cooperativeness. Whilst it did take awhile, not only did he move across to the Collaborate mode but he was effusive in defending us.
Contrast that with the other consultancies who labelled him as "difficult" and avoided him - to everyone's detriment.
Whilst conflict is inevitable, fatalism isn't.
PS: For those wondering if I'm a cat or a dog, let's just say I'm now a "reformed cat" thanks to my wife.
🤔 Made me think
Not having the conflict isn't the way forward either.
As human beings, we're wired to value being part of a tribe for our survival.
However, one of the downsides is that we're also wired to be agreeable so that we can stay in the tribe. That leads to groupthink where we avoid conflict, avoid speaking up, and end up in a worse position that no-one would've chosen.
Put another way: when was the last time you stood up in a room of your seniors as the sole dissenting voice?
Avoiding airing the dissenting opinion is worse than enduring the conflict. At least with the latter you can resolve it.
👨🏻💻 Worth checking out
🔗 Johnny Decimal (Jonny Noble): As a mentor for Khe Hy's SYP course, I was explaining how I use my take of this system to organise my life - including this newsletter.
📺 The Changing Room Illusion (Michael Cohen): The 2021 winner shows how blind we can be to gradual changes. Parallels how you can slowly win over stakeholders.
🖖Until next Thursday ...
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For now, thank you so much for reading this week's issue of The Forcing Function and I hope that you have a great day.
PS: Thanks to P for reading drafts for me.