How your landscape expands if you talk about conflict…

295_Conflict_4

Let me start by saying: I don’t like conflict. I am actually pretty good at diffusing unnecessary conflict and running away from necessary conflict.  (except sometimes, when I turn around in mid-running, and explode, but that is a different story).

I don’t even like talking about conflict. So why have I started insisting that most of the groups that I draw network maps with, add a link of “conflict” to their picture? Even if they don’t approach me with the question: “How can we solve our conflicts better?” Even if they don’t mention a single conflict when we plan the Net-Map session. But rather, their question might be: How can we be more successful in project implementation? How can I achieve my personal career goals? Or: How can we change the world?

I stumbled over the importance of talking about conflict when talking about networks rather unintentionally. When I included the link “conflict” in some of the maps I drew, I realized a pattern: Often the groups had agreed on the actors that play a role for the question, put them all on the map, linked them with friendly or neutral links, such as collaboration, hierarchy or money flows.

Then we moved to the question: Who has a conflict with whom? And all of a sudden new actors came out of the woodworks, quiet participants became agitated and the group explained the world to me in a way that had much more depth (dark and deep holes too) than the good weather picture we had seen before.

While I learned a lot about the personal differences, conflicts of interest and beliefs, I also learned about the history of the system, because most conflicts reach into the past. I started understanding where people were coming from, both in terms of their thinking and their family, loyalty and tribal relations. And by mapping out the conflict flows and how they are embedded in the rest of the social network, we could detect patterns and reasons that go beyond individual .

One agency or actor might be at the center of all conflicts in the network: Is that because they are mean and always looking for trouble? Or because they are standing up for what is right, in a corrupt system? Or is it because their formal role is to control others (e.g. evaluation function) so conflict is inherent in their role and will remain a productive force in the system?

There might be actors who have conflicts with our opponents – can we build coalitions, even if their area of interest is different from ours?

Drawing the lines of conflict is like adding the shallows to a nautical navigation map. Instead of just seeing where the ocean starts and ends, you now know which rocks and sandbanks you need to avoid on your perilous journey of change. And, in case you are nervous to ask about conflict when you are drawing network maps, in my experience, putting the conflict on paper by drawing colorful lines together seems to be enough of a diffusion that the sessions don’t normally end in a yelling match but rather turn into a collaborative exploration of how the conflict works.

Strategic engagement – with snakes, elephants, baboons, mosquitos and meercats

smiling-baboonI am just back from work in Southern Africa. And while I was in a specific country with it’s specifically difficult political context, the question that keept us awake at night was rather universal: How can we influence without much formal authority? How can we achieve the greater good (as we define it, anyway), when doing so will cut off streams of illicit benefits for many people in high position?

Then I found a simple solution, fixed the situation and all is well, world saved.

No, not quite. Rather, I led my participants deeper into the complexity of their challenge (identifying who the actors are, how they are connected, what their influence and goals are, a.k.a. drawing a Net-Map stakeholder map). Then I provided them with guidance to prioritize and strategize for most effectively engaging with their stakeholders.

We divided the stakeholders in

  • Elephants: high influence, positive
  • Meercats: low influence, positive
  • Snakes: high influence, negative
  • Mosquitos: low influence, negative, and
  • Baboons on the fence: high influence, undecided

And for each, there are a number of strategies to explore:

Elephants: High influence, positive toward your goals

elephants

  • Give them credit, let them lead
  • Frame the issue for them, share information
  • Engage consistently, regularly
  • Manage possible power struggle between positive high influencers
  • Build diverse coalitions:
    • Diverse power sources,
    • diverse motivations,
    • shared goals.

Meercats: Low influence, positive toward your goals

meercats

  • Can you increase their influence?
  • They can be connectors and information gatherers
  • They might have helpful friends
  • Build coalitions – strength in numbers
  • Remember: “A leader without followers is just someone taking a walk”

And, don’t underestimate them: threat or belief can activate unexpected strength -see below, together they can kill a snake…

meercats-and-snake

Snakes: High influence, negative toward your goal

snake.png

  • Watch your back – protect yourself
  • Avoid – focus on other issues for now
  • Seek unexpected common ground
  • Explore their networks: Who do they listen to? Who commands them?
  • Explore win-win and trade-offs
  • Undermine their narratives
  • Weaken their coalitions

 

 

Mosquitos: Low influence, negative toward your goal

mosquito

  • What do they care about? Can you entice them to your side?
  • Are you sure they are weak?
  • Watch out for influence increase over time
  • Interfere with their coalition building
  • Can you safely ignore them for now?

 

 

Baboons on the fence: High influence, undecided about your goal

baboon-on-a-fence

  • What do they care about? Can you entice them to your side?
  • Are you sure they are weak?
  • Watch out for influence increase over time
  • Interfere with their coalition building
  • Can you safely ignore them for now?

 

 

By grouping our stakeholders according to their influence and their relationship to our goal, we became much more specific when developing engagement strategies. And calling our important stakeholders baboons or meercats also added a level of levity to the discussion that made us breathe more freely under the weight of our near impossible task. What are your strategies for engaging elephants, empowering meercats, swaying baboons, neutralizing snakes and protecting yourselves from mosquito bites? I am sure the above isn’t complete yet, so I am curious to hear from you.

What is the one little thing you can do?

Want to eat an elephant? Take it one bite at a time (picture copyright by Phil and Pam on flickr)

Have grand New Year’s resolutions? Good for you. Had grand New Year’s resolutions last year too and abandonned them mid-January? Don’t beat yourself up, because you are not alone. But if you want to do better this year, ask yourself: What is the one little thing I can do to move toward my goal? Do that one thing and allow yourself to be proud of yourself. Whether it is: always take the stairs at the office (while your grand resolution was to become a triathlete) or try meatless Mondays once a month (while your grand resolution was to become a vegetarian and loose 50 pounds). Once you see that you can do it, ask yourself: What is the next one little thing I can do?

I recently learned how looking for the one little thing can help you from being overwhelmed if the challenges seem too large to tackle. I guided a colleague through drawing a personal happiness Net-Map, mapping out who influences her personal happiness. Then, as we looked at a messy network of friends, family and colleagues who provided support or sucked energy, it felt like this was too much to even start taking doing anything. By asking for the one little thing we understood that you can eat an elephant one bite at a time. As long as you get started (if eating an elephant is your goal you might skip the meatless Mondays though…)

New Year’s Resolution: This year I won’t take the caterpillar approach to personal growth

New Year's Resolution: This year I won't take the caterpillar approach to personal growth

I cannot fly! I know that from experience!

From Net-Map to Action in less than a Minute

Picture by junussyndicate on deviantART

Today, at day one of our Net-Map training here in DC, participants spend the afternoon mapping out cases from their own experience. And I witnessed the fastest move from a Net-Map to action I have ever seen. One participant mapped out a question around economic development in his community. After the mapping was done, he excused himself, went next door and started making phone calls. He wanted to make sure to catch his colleagues before they closed shop for the weekend. The questions that other participants (who knew nothing about his case before) had asked him, opened a door in his mind and all of a sudden he realized how he could connect to the major influencer in his question. And so he did. And if his strategy works out, he will tell us.

What’s more important? People or structures?

If you look at any great change, in your organization, in history, and you ask people to describe who this happened, most likely you will get one of these two stories:

Story 1.

It’s all about the people: There was this inspired leader, or evil man, or group of passionate individuals, or conspirators, or clever people, who came up with this grand idea who made all of this happen. If you wanted it to happen again, you would have to find the right people again and that’s the only way it would work. This would be an inspirational story (or a gruesome one, if the leader was an evil one) about the power of one but it would also leave you a bit at a loss in the question of how you learn from this for another similar situation.

Story 2.

It’s all about the structure: The time was right, there was a new law, technical invention, financial incentive, change in weather pattern, means of transportation, political system and all of a sudden, people (like sheep) had no choice but to change how they were doing things, it only made sense. The story sounds logical and convincing, enchantingly simple. It holds the promise that, if you want to replicate it, you just have to change the structure in the same way and everything will fall into place.

But have you ever wondered: Which one, now, is the true story? How come the same event can be told in these very different ways? Or do you hear the stories and it’s very easy for you to decide which one is a true account of what happened? If you know exactly which one is the true story, that might make you feel very clever. But beware, being very sure of something is often not a sign of high intelligence but rather of strong bias. You will get much closer to the truth if you don’t just enjoy this feeling of “I’m so clever” but rather explore your bias a bit further and see what other people (with other biases) have to say. The fact that both, the people and the structure story sound so convincing to so many people, can either mean: Half of the people are clever (obviously, the ones who share my view), the other half is stupid. Or it means: Both stories are true. If you combine thinking about people and structures you will gain a far deeper insight into what actually happened. And you double your options for changing the world. Because depending on what your levers are, you can work on both, putting the right people in place, connecting and enthusing them AND changing the structures in which they operate.

When we draw Net-Maps and discuss them, we often jump between talking about individual agency and talking about structure. The network connections (e.g. flows of money, hierarchy, friendships, conflict) tell you a lot about the structure and by mapping out the whole system you can get some insights about incentives and patterns that you would’t see by just talking about inspirational leadership. But when we discuss how influential individual actors are (influence towers) and explore what their goals and specific connections in the network are, and how they use them, we often talk very concretely about the way that individuals lead, disturb, interact, build trust, follow a vision etc. Bringing groups who work together around the table to discuss people and structures can have amazing effects. Because typically group members would either lean toward story 1  or story 2. Opening up to the idea that both stories are true and valuable can bring teams closer together and help them develop far more powerful strategies.

Leadership is an activity, not a position

Writing it on the wall will not make you a leader, sorry 
(picture by Ziggy_Mo on Flickr)

 

We often talk about leaders and what we actually mean is “people who sit in a high position in a formal hierarchy”, people in so called leadership positions. But there are many who hold these positions and achieve very little. Others, from the middle of the organization, or even the outside, may start a movement, develop a followership or coalition, change the way things are done and achieve excellent results. As long as we think that leadership is a position (with a title, a corner-office and a heavy leather chair) we can’t understand this. The person in the higher position should have more followers and be able to lead them to greater results. But once you understand that leadership is an activity (or rather a combination of many activities) the picture becomes more clear.

Leadership is not sitting in a corner office (though flauting your status may be a successful leadership strategy in some situations). And leadership is not something you are assigned and get to keep until you retire. What I find most exciting about the idea of leadership as an activity though is that it is open to everyone. You don’t have to wait to become the boss to start leading. Choose a specific issue you care about, a setting in which you feel comfortable trying it out and start training your leadership muscles. If you work in a very hierarchical organization and doubt anyone would change company strategies just because the cleaning lady (you) said so, start your training elsewhere: In a civic movement, your church, your neighborhood or your dog-training-club. Or, instead of tackling the core strategy in your organization, focus on a neglected side issue, start a “greening group” or a professional development initiative. The most important thing is to start exercising, start leading something, somewhere, some time. And observe what happens: What works, what doesn’t, what feels comfortable? Observe others: How do they do it? Would you feel authentic trying out these strategies? And, give yourself a break. No one needs to lead all the time in all areas of life.

Over to you: Where have you exercised your leadership muscles lately? What are some strategies that you find helpful when leading from below? I’m curious to hear from you.