Whenever disagreement arises (and it will, for wherever there is change, their will be disagreement and conflict), great alliance practitioners are careful to focus on ideas and issues, steering clear of ego entrapment games, such as “who's right or wrong,” or “what's good or bad” that will rapidly descend into the pits of defensive self-righteousness and intractable conflict.
Conflict is the inevitable by-product of all change, and any proposition of new ideas will generate some amount of conflict. The objective is to prevent the conflict from degenerating into blind fear and inflexible rigidity. As one champion in our focus groups articulated it:
- “Without conflict there will probably be no buy-in. I just have to be careful I do not take conflict personally as an attack on myself. Conflict is just a tool to get people talking and debating an issue from one side or another. It promotes the kind of understanding necessary to be successful in this business.”
Most organizational relationships exist in a world of constant flux, and therefore need frequent and continual adjustment. If those responsible for the alliance use win-lose negotiating techniques, always angling for self-interested advantage, then each side will lose synergy potential. But worse, this approach will then generate conflict, which will soon become unmanageable as trust and commitment rapidly evaporate in an enflamed atmosphere of fear and protection.
Turning Breakdowns into Breakthroughs
The Co-Creative Spirit has an internal compass that points to synergy in lieu of conflict. This does not mean disagreements and breakdowns do not occur. But rather that these circumstances are opportunities for improvement, situations for turning breakdowns into breakthrough, conditions for shifting to higher orders of thinking.
Disagreement does not naturally gravitate to conflict, but becomes a transcendent experience to turn the passion of argument into the passion of creation.
Instead of taking “positions” on issues – a certain sign that conflict is brewing – the effective leader seeks to find mutual interest, joint advantage, shared vision, common values, and combined strength to stake out a new future and a shift in thinking.
This leader will not be a great compromiser between the diverse elements, however, unless every other avenue has been explored. A compromise is usually seen as a poor second choice, the forsaking of a dream. Forging a new unity from seemingly diverse values and thinking will be the relationship champion’s first choice. This unity becomes a new order of interaction, better than the original, thereby creating a super-ordinate culture for the alliance.
Negotiating styles that are overly legalistic, win-lose, or adversarial in any way will be highly detrimental to the overall health of the alliance in an environment of frequent repositioning.
In a fast moving, rapidly changing world, many strategic driving forces will be in flux -- technology is changing; customer tastes are changing; power positions are changing; priorities are changing. The underlying forces that may have been the fundamental reason the strategic relationship was formed may be in a constant state of flux, serving as a major destabilizing factor, like a rogue wave trying to capsize a boat. Thus, strategic relationships are in constant need of transformation.
But bull-headed managers are quickly trapped in untenable positions by dramatic shifts in strategic driving forces. In an effort to maintain trust by establishing predictability, efforts to justify their position by self-effacing comments like: “at least you know where I stand, therefore you can trust me,” are met with increasingly incredulous stares. As the Bible says, when the blind lead the blind, both end up in a ditch.
Here it’s important to make a critical distinction between ethics/values and direction in any strategic relationship. Ethics are one of the only (if not the only) things that remains unchanged over the course of a strategic relationship. Ethics is like an anchor to windward, providing a firm grounding for the relationship. On the other hand, direction may change strategic winds change, more adversarial conditions emerge, or more information is known. For example, in the very important relationship between a doctor and their patient, the doctor’s ethics have been proscribed two thousand years ago with the Hippocratic Oath, but the doctors treatment program must change as new lab reports provide different insights, tissue generation or degeneration occurs, etc.
Relationship managers must be monitoring the shifts in the strategic environment regularly, and repositioning the membership to align with these shifts.
Because complex organizational relationships must transform themselves frequently or lose their mission and purpose, leaders must establish a culture of visioning, breakthroughs, and co-creation as a foundation for their renegotiations. As one telecommunications executive said of his alliance in Poland, “No one knows what the future will look like. But if we don’t talk about it, we will end up someplace else.”
Flexibility is essential to making relationships work over the long haul, because benefits to each party are seldom equal at any one point in time. Each partner can expect to see benefits unequal for short periods of time, but without flexibility to re-write an agreement, failure is lurking.\
For example, in the alliance between British Airways and USAir, both airlines gained significant new passengers and made commensurate investment. However the benefits eventually saw BA gaining over a 100% increase in revenues, while struggling USAir gained only 40%. This situation called for a readjustment of the division of profits, which, when it did not occur, created acrimony and eventual dissolution of the alliance. BA’s later alliance with American Airlines embraced a distribution of revenues based on passengers attributable to the alliance.
What is missing from most teams, alliances, and partnerships is a clear definition of the spirit that bonds people and organizations together, and gives them the flexibility to make adjustments as the world around them changes. This flexibility and agility can never be codified in a legal contract. In fact, successful alliance managers proclaim that if they have to look at the legal contract, the alliance has failed. Strategic relationships exist not the contract but in the soul and spirit of those who create and manage it. Successful synergistic relationships are best codified by a co-created set of mutually beneficial operating principles or rules engagement than by a legalistic, trust destroying contract.