Friday, December 19, 2014

Winning at Win-Win Negotiation

One of my colleagues is quite upset that I have been talking about winning at win-win negotiation.  He views the inclusion of this idea in the subtitle of my new book (Good for You, Great for Me: Finding the Trading Zone and Winning at Win-Win Negotiation, Public Affairs) as a betrayal. He's part of the "Getting to Yes" Club (as am I), and mistakenly thinks that Getting to Yes (Fisher, Ury and Patton) requires a commitment to negotiating in a purely cooperative way.  That's wrong. The "principled approach" to negotiation introduced in Getting to Yes never assumed that both "sides" had to commit to purely cooperative behavior.  Indeed, having known the authors for many years, I can assure you that they expected skilled negotiators to confront the inevitable tension between "creating and claiming value," that is, balancing the cooperative and competitive elements of every negotiation.

The key argument in my book is that a negotiator is likely to do better in a negotiation if he or she goes out of their way to make sure that their counterpart(s) achieve their most important interests -- while they achieve theirs. That doesn't mean, however, that everyone should split everything equally. Indeed, it's not at all clear that an even split is appropriate.  I might bring more to a deal or agree to shoulder a greater share of the risk. If I do that, I should get a disproportionate share of the value we create.  That's only fair. So, the question going into a negotiation is who will get the greater share of the value created AFTER both sides have meet their most important interests.  I call that winning at win-win negotiation.

In the book, I describe six strategies for claiming value in a win-win context.  Each assumes a sincere effort to help the other side meet their most important interests. Indeed, I argue that you should go out of your way to formulate agreements that create more value for the other side than they ever expected.  Once basic interests are met, however, I think you can legitimately argue that since you did more to create a mutually advantageous agreement, you deserve a greater share of the total value created.

Over the last four decades, sophisticated negotiators have moved from win-lose (zero-sum) to win-win (all gain) negotiating strategies.  Now, we have to convince the win-win crowd that there's nothing wrong with claiming a disproportionate share of the value they have helped to create (once basic interests have been met on all sides). There are ways to do this that won't spoil relationships.  Do you know what's involved, or do you need to read Good for You, Great for Me?


Saturday, December 13, 2014

What's the right thing to do when you are really angry about what's happening in America?

Students are marching in the streets to protest the recent killings of Black Americans.  They want those in positions of power to acknowledge that these deaths are, at least in part, the result of unchecked racism that is still very much alive in our country. Whatever progress has been made over the past fifty years to address inequality, unfairness, racial bias, ignorance, lack of empathy and unequal opportunities, there is still a long way to go before everyday life in America aligns with the ideals we espouse as a nation.  The protesters want the institutions that they are part of to do a better job of addressing rampant unfairness and privilege in their normal course of business.  (There isn't a single class being offered in any college or university, for example,  that couldn't make a useful connection between what is being taught and the changes required to make the world a fairer place.)  They want our political leaders to re-affirm that fairness and equality of opportunity are, in fact, important goals.  They want to see explicit action and resource commitments that make it possible to achieve the democratic ideals we allude to all the time.

And, if the leaders in all the institutions and communities in the country no longer think that greater equality of opportunity and fairness in the allocation of collective resources are appropriate goals, then the protesters want them to admit that.  Recent reports indicate that the majority of our citizens no longer think the American dream is something that they or their children can reasonable hope to achieve.  That is, with the jobs they are likely to get, they won't be able to afford the housing and services they require. With the public education available to them (at increasing costs), they won't be able to get better jobs. And, with the cutbacks in government and government services, they won't be able to count on the healthy environment that is a prerequisite to living a full life and providing something better for their children.  If that's what the majority face, the protesters want those in positions of leadership to own up to that. Because once they do, it might be possible to rouse the vast majority of people from their political lethargy.

Even with increasing control of our political process shifting to lobbyists and wealthy donors, the power of social media can not be suppressed.  If the vast majority of people reach the conclusion that the inequalities and unfairness in our society are no longer tolerable, and they had an easy way to express their unhappiness, the noise would be deafening.  If that noise were accompanied by an on-line mobilization effort around a very simple agenda, it would be possible to reframe the political discourse in the country and draw in the half of all eligible voters who don't bother to vote.  It now takes only 20% of eligible voters to win a Congressional seat. It doesn't take much more than that to win the Presidency. If everyone eligible could vote on line, and their votes were clearly connected to an explicit action agenda (rather than a watered-down party platform), it would be relatively easy to engage the half of America that is too disheartened or angry to vote.

What might this new political agenda include?  Not easy bromides or slogans about divisive social issues that have no consequence for how trillions of public dollars are spent. Rather, the agenda should include free public education through college for anyone whose family makes less than $100,000 a year.  Free job training for anyone who chooses not to attend college. Free health care for anyone who needs it, but can't afford it.  Free food for any family that can't afford it. Housing subsidies for anyone who can not afford market-reate housing. A retirement wage sufficient to live a meaningful life. The programs needed to accomplish all of these goals are already in place (although there are elected politicians trying to dismantle them). They are just not funded adequately. We have the financial resources in our overall economic system to cover these costs while still allowing continued economic growth.   At the heart of everything is what we have forgotten about the role of government.  It is only through our collective efforts that our individual well-being can be guaranteed, and government is the only mechanism by which we can act collectively.  There is no way that each household can ensure clean water, clean air, adequate transportation, food that's safe to eat, punishment of consumer fraud, access to information, a legal system that holds private parties to their contractual obligations, protection from terrorism, investment in basic science, and so on.  Yet, as a country, we have been brainwashed. We think that shrinking the government is going to help us. Nothing we do privately will amount to anything without an adequate government system to protect us.  Each of us is both a private actor and a citizen.  People have been focused too much on the things they can do for themselves as private individuals, and not enough on the things we must all do together for our private interests to amount to anything.

Take the total cost of all the guarantees I have listed. Subtract the revenue raised by a reasonable tax on corporate wealth and profits. Divide the remainder by the number of households in America. Compare the remaining cost per household to the income and wealth that each household has. Calculate what a progressive system of taxation would need to raise to cover these basic guarantees. Design a system of taxation that rewards entrepreneurial effort, but only after our minimum collective  costs are covered.

What we need are some very bright people to prepare a national budget starting with a clean sheet of paper.  I think most people would be shocked to see how easily all the basic guarantees I have listed can be met. If people ran for office on a very specific agenda of expenditure and revenue priorities, we could hold our elected officials accountable (at every level of government) to fulfill these commitments (and nothing more). This would restore everyone's sense of political efficacy.  My colleague Sol Erdman and I have spelled out how this would work (what we called Interactive Representation or IR) in a book entitled THE CURE FOR OUR BROKEN POLITICAL PROCESS: How We Can Get Our Politicians to Resolve the Issues Tearing Our Country Apart (Potomac Books, $10 Kindle or Hardback). But, even if you don't look at the book, think about what it will take to ensure greater equality of opportunity and fairness of results in America. Think about the things we have to do collectively because individuals working on their own can't accomplish them. Think about using social media to mobilize people around a very simple agenda. Think about the things you can propose that would benefit the vast majority of Americans and ensure greater fairness in our society. Try to get the place where you work or study to put aside a little time to talk about the systematic racism and unfairness that people in our country face every day.



Saturday, November 29, 2014

Retire Already! Why?

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Laurie Fendrich, a professor of drawing and painting at Hofstra University, charged that anyone who holds on to a university appointment beyond age 65 is selfish and greedy. What upsets her most are senior professors who have no intention of retiring. The longer they hang on, she argues, the fewer opportunities there are for new junior faculty to be hired. Moreover, she asserts, senior faculty are staying on just because they can. (Federal law not only outlawed mandatory retirement in the academy, it made it impossible for university administrators to even inquire about the retirement plans of individual faculty members.)

There are so many wrong-headed elements to Professor Fendrich's argument,  I don't know where to begin. First, she doesn't say that faculty who are no longer effective should retire; she assumes that anyone over 65 (70 at most!) should quit; that anyone over 65 is no longer a capable teacher or scholar.  That's age discrimination at its worst.  Second, she assumes that the departure of senior faculty will lead to the hiring of new full-time junior faculty, by their departments. Given the tendency of many colleges and universities to switch, whenever they can, to adjunct and part-time appointments, students have no guarantee that the departure of a senior faculty member will result in a new full time appointment. Thus, the department of all faculty members of 65 is likely to lead to the rapid loss of quality in academic programs.  Third, it's not clear who is going to mentor all the new junior faculty she assumes will be joining the university ranks.  Anyone who thinks that excellent college instructors and researchers are born and not made, doesn't know what they are talking about. Every department and every field needs a mix of senior and junior faculty to ensure the on-going development of a highly skilled professoriate.

This brings me to the program recently adopted by my university.  When I reach 70, I can switch
to part-time status, yet still remain a member of the tenured faculty.  I can begin to receive my retirement benefits, but still receive a half-time salary.  This does not require that I switch to emeritus
status (which would basically strip me of my privileges and responsibilities).  Emeritus faculty may be assigned a group office (so they visit the campus every day), but in most cases they do not play a part in hiring, promotion, admission, or continuing teaching their courses, supervising graduate students or serving as principal investigators on research grants and contracts.  Under the new system I am talking about, senior faculty can continue to do all these things.  By switching to a multi-year (renewable) contract, and reducing my draw on departmental resources, my department has the money it needs to hire a new junior faculty member (with the half of my salary that is released).   While there is no guarantee this will happen  -- because the central administration may want to hold the "head count" constant --  if there is a new hire, I will be on hand for several years (at least) to mentor the new hire, and perhaps teach together or jointly manage a research project.

There was a reason that mandatory retirement was forbidden in American universities in 1994.  Too much experience and brain power were being arbitrarily jettisoned. Now, people like Laurie Fendrich want to go back to that system by arbitrarily shaming faculty over 65 into retiring early.  I have no doubt that many 65 year old faculty members are no longer as productive or skilled as they once were. I hope anyone who falls in that category will decide to retire and make way for a new generation of college instructors. But, that should be decided on a case-by-case basis. I would also point out that there are younger faculty who are equally unproductive or incapable.  I have no problem with a system of peer review that provides feedback to all faculty members every few years after they have been granted tenure. If,  after several negative reviews, a faculty member who has been warned (and given the help required to re-establish their bona fides) is asked to reduce their paid time and revise their responsibilities, that would not be unreasonable.  A fair, evidenced-based peer review process (such as we use to make promotion and tenure decisions) is fine. It is the arbitrary assumption that everyone over 65 is washed up, selfish or greedy that is unfair and repugnant.

Monday, November 10, 2014

What is a Devising Seminar? And how is it being used to address the risks facing Arctic Fisheries?

Arctic sea ice is retreating.  This is creating new opportunities to explore and traverse the Central Arctic Ocean, north of the Arctic Circle.  Some countries, like Russia, are eager to explore for oil and gas in this newly accessible area.  Greenpeace, which is devoting significant resources to protecting the Arctic, is pushing hard for the creation of a permanent sanctuary.  China and South Korea have declared themselves "Arctic Nations" now that their boats can, for at least part of the year, make their way through waters that used to be blocked by ice. Indigenous peoples, like the Inuit in Alaska,
Gwich'in People in Canada and the Saami People in Finland and Russia are worried about the environmental impacts that oil and gas exploration, or just oil and gas shipments might have on fisheries and sea mammals.  Because the area is newly opened, there is no scientific baseline
from which to work regarding the state of the Central Arctic Ocean ecosystems, particularly the fisheries.

The inter-governmental Arctic Council was created in 1996 to promote cooperation among the Arctic states.  It includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. The Council has offered Permanent Participant status and guaranteed consultation rights to Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic region.  Of the 4 million people in the Arctic, approximately 500,000 are indigenous.  The Arctic Circle is a not-for-profit organization that seeks to involve as many civil society groups as possible in collaborative decision-making about the Arctic.  More than 1,000 people participated in its recent annual meeting in Iceland. So, there is an official body and an unofficial body trying to draw attention to the need for more sustainable development and protection of environmental resources in the Arctic.  Unfortunately, the Council has no enforcement powers and existing treaties, like the United Nations Law of the Sea, as well as bilateral fishing agreements in the peripheral portions of the Arctic Ocean, don't guarantee that governmental and non-governmental parties will do the "right thing" when it comes to preserving the extraordinary marine resources of the Central Arctic or protecting the interests of Indigenous Peoples.

Several weeks ago, at Harvard Law School, the Program on Negotiation (PON) (an inter-university consortium committed to improving the theory and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution) organized a two day Devising Seminar, the goal of which was to identify "good ideas" that might infuse formal decision-making by governments, First Peoples, industries and civil society groups whose actions could either doom or protect newly accessible areas of the Arctic.  For several months prior to the meeting, the PON team interviewed (privately and on a not-for-attribution basis) more than 45 of the government officials, local leaders, industry stakeholders, science organizations and environmental advocacy groups with long-standing interests in the future of the Arctic.  Those interviews were incorporated into a Stakeholder Assessment -- a 30 page document summarizing the views of each category of stakeholders (without attributing anything to any individual) in response to seven questions. Interviewees were asked about: (1) new risks to various Arctic fisheries posed by retreating sea ice;  (2) strategies for protecting fish stocks; (3) gaps in scientific knowledge; (4) the possible need for new monitoring systems; (5) concerns of indigenous communities; (6) ways of reducing the impact of oil spills that might occur; and (7) the possible need for new treaties or new institutional arrangements. The key findings are summarized in three one page tables.

Based on the Stakeholder Assessment, PON invited 30 participants, representing most of the key stakeholder groups, to the Cambridge meeting. The ground rules were simple: we would talk through
the six questions and see whether the group as a whole could come up with suggested responses that might meet the most important concerns of ALL of the relevant stakeholder groups.  That is, we defined good ideas as responses to the questions that could win nearly unanimous support from everyone present.  There were no speeches allowed. There was no opportunity to rehearse long-held official positions.  Those were all summarized in the Stakeholder Assessment that everyone received ahead of time. You can read the Stakeholder Assessment here http://scienceimpact.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/AFDS_StakeholderAssessment.pdf

Because everyone was participating in their "personal" rather than their official capacity, and no names would be appended to the eventual summary of good ideas, participants were free to engage in open-ended "problem solving," without fear that their statements would get them in trouble "back home."

The conversation was facilitated by the PON team (which I headed).  As the discussion unfolded, good ideas were captured in real time on a large screen behind the facilitators at the end of a
large horseshoe of tables and chairs around which the participants sat.  What people saw weren't minutes (again, no one was named). Only emerging points of agreement, summarized at the end of each segment of the discussion by the facilitation team, were recorded.

By the end of the session, the group was somewhat surprised that many points of agreement emerged, especially regards the desirability of a temporary moratorium on oil and gas exploration as well as fisheries development in the Central Arctic Ocean. This would permit collaborative scientific efforts a chance to build an accurate baseline and prepare generally accepted forecasts of changing conditions. Several groups were quite concerned that such a moratorium should only be freely adopted by each country involved, and not imposed.  Most were not willing to think in terms of a permanent moratorium, at least not at this time.  You can read the Summary Report here http://scienceimpact.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/AFDS_SummaryReport.pdf.

A Devising Seminar is a carefully constructed and facilitated forum in which a wide range of stakeholders, who often have no opportunity to engage in constructive face-to-face problem solving because of the political and institutional setting in which they operate, can, in fact, explore their differences and search for well-founded agreements. Such sessions can only succeed when they are preceded by the preparation of a full-blown Stakeholder Assessment,  prepared by a team of neutral facilitators trusted by the parties. Participants have to be assured that what they say in informal conversation won't come back to haunt them. The participants in the Devising Seminar must include a range of technical or scientific experts who can offer well-informed answers to factual questions that arise (even if they disagree among themselves).  The facilitation team must allow all the participants a chance to review and revise the draft Summary of the Devising Seminar report, even though no one's names are ultimately mentioned.

The Summary Report of the Devising Seminar on the Arctic Fisheries was presented at a recent plenary meeting of the Arctic Circle in Iceland.  More importantly, the document is now in the hands of the senior leadership of each of the Arctic Council countries, First Nation Permanent Participants and many of the most active scientific and civil society groups with a stake in the Arctic.  They are all free to cite or draw on the good ideas in the Summary Report in any way they want.  What's unusual, I think, is that they can put forward any recommendation contained in the Summary Report with confidence that almost all of the other stakeholder groups involved are likely support these ideas.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Social Venture Capitalists, Where Are You?

I was reading yet another story about the impact that venture capital companies are having on the economy of Boston.  Good (scientific and technological) ideas emerge from the laboratories at MIT, Harvard and other Boston area universities. Venture capital firms swarm the best of these, offering start-up funding and a lot of advice on how to get new products to market and convince others to invest in them.  The venture capital firms have learned a lot over the past few decades about picking winners and losers.  They know what to look for. They  measure their success in terms of the private investment capital they can attract (often by going public) and the increasing valuation of the companies they create, when they are later bought and sold. They don't actually have to make money in the short term to be considered a long-term success.

There are a lot of us around who know how to help companies, communities, organizations and agencies build social capital.  That is, we know how to help companies improve corporate-stakeholder and corporate-community relations.  We know how to build trust where only suspicion once reigned.  If you can do this, you can multiple the return to capital realized by the venture capitalists AND produce fairer, more sustainable results. We know how to help extractive industries like mining and forestry, for instance,  avoid the endless legal battles and costly delays that make it hard to get started and harder to function in a cost-effective way. They need to change the way they interact with host communities, regulators, and people likely to be affected by what they do.  We can show them how to do that.

The largest hydroproject in Chile was just stopped by the courts because the companies involved did not make sufficient efforts to engage residents (including indigenous communities) in thinking about what to build, where to build and how to minimize impacts (by making smarter locational and design decisions).  They never got around to talking about compensation for adverse impacts that could not be mitigated. Secret corporate decisions led to harsh public opposition.  Legal and political advocates were able to delay and ultimately stop what looked to be a done deal. Huge oil and gas projects proposed in the Arctic are likely to be stalled in the same way, and appropriately so, if companies don't invest sufficient time, effort and money now in building trust, sharing decision-making responsibility, and minimizing social and environmental impacts.   Oil, gas and mining interests in Africa are sitting on huge new finds, but they face long stalemates if they don't  figure out how to build social capital. If local interests don't stop them, international NGO's like Greenpeace will.  The old models that ignored the need to build social capital (i.e. good working relationships with those likely to be affected by what is being proposed) no longer work.

At the local level in the United States, its much the same story. Energy companies know that we need more electricity to support a growing economy; yet, efforts to initiate fracking (natural gas exploration), the siting of renewable energy facilities (like wind farms and large solar arrays) and large scale mixed use development projects in many cities are facing increasing opposition. What's sad, is that it would not be that difficult to help the companies involved generate the social capital required to permit (appropriately-sized sited) projects go forward without obstruction. Think in terms of Community Benefit Corporations.  Any developer proposing to build any large project in a city or in a region would create a private corporation. This legal entity would own a portion of the assets created by the project.  It would then distribute shares in that project to every resident or stakeholder. These shares would not be worth anything at the outset, but if the project goes forward with community and stakeholder support, the shares would gain in value.  Thus, the developer and the community have a joint interest in finding a version of the propose project that everyone can support. Shareholders, or course, would be able to speak at annual meetings.  They wouldn't have to plead for an opportunity to address the owners (to complain about unexpected social and environmental impacts), because they would be the owners.  The directors of each Community Benefit Corporation would include a certain number of members identified by the investors, several selected by elected officials and some chosen by the full membership of the shareholders.  (Rural Electric Cooperatives in the United States have been doing this for an awfully long time.)  This is just one option for building shared commitments and restoring levels of trust.

Building social capital in something that most venture capital investors know nothing about.  There are, however, organizations (mostly not-for-profits) with the knowledge and experience to provide investors with the advice and assistance they need.  Increasing social capital translates into greater economic returns.  It also translates into more socially and environmentally responsible development and restores trust that has been so eroded by the manipulation of public opinion by secret investors operating under made-up names implying they care about what happens to the average person. They don't.  The political deadlock we are in now is caused fundamentally by a lack of trust. We can work to restore trust, increase the chances for development (of the appropriate kind) to proceed, enhance the growth of the economy and cause the benefits of new development to be shared in a fairer way.  We just need to complement our fascination with venture capital (and an economy of start-ups) with a purposeful commitment to the creation of social capital.  And the people with all the money need to acknowledge they need the help of advisors from the not-for-profit world who have been creating social capital for years. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Preparing for Climate Change Requires Collective Risk Management (CRM)

If I told you that your coastal city will probably face rising sea levels, more very hot summer days, and increasingly intense rain and snow storms, would you expect someone to do something? What exactly? And whose responsibility is it to take appropriate action?  Even if  the city wants to do something, what can they do to minimize the worst effects?

The Science Impact Collaborative at MIT has prepared risk assessments for four coastal communities in New England.   Here’s what one looks like (please click the images to view them in full screen format):




By downscaling global circulation models (and checking forecasts against actual meteorological data from local measuring stations) we can generate local forecasts for the near term (about 20 - 30 years in the future), the medium term (about 50 – 60 years into the future) and what we are calling the long term (about 80 – 90 years in the future).  All the towns we looked at are very likely to get hotter and wetter.  You can see all the details about the forecasting methods and our findings at necap.mit.edu.

If I boil all the results down, and tell you that annual rainfall is going to increase 5 inches a year (or about 10%) over the next several decades, the number of times extreme rainfall happens (more than 4” in 48 hours) will double, sea level will increase between two and five feet, and the number of days with 90 degree temperature in the summer will increase from about three to as many as 30, would that worry you? After all, the worst effects might not happen during your lifetime (although they are very likely to happen during the lifetime of your children).   My assumption is that your first reaction would be, “What does this mean for me?”   Well, it means that if you live in a low-lying area, your house is going to be flooded periodically, and you are likely to be without electricity for extended periods.   If you live very near the shore, erosion might make your house uninsurable and unsellable.  If your mobility happens to be limited (by age or illness), you might need to evacuate periodically. And, you may have to stay in an air-conditioned location for long stretches in the summer. It could be that you will be at greater risk of suffering from airborne diseases of various kinds. In general, you can probably expect to be inconvenienced and even endangered on a regular basis.  Your drinking water supply could be at risk.

If everyone in your city is upset enough about all of this, you could press your elected officials to do something.  They could raise taxes and invest in various improvements to the town infrastructure (including roads, electricity transmission lines, drinking water, waste treatment systems, and even water-proofing public buildings).   They might buy a lot more emergency response equipment and arrange to have more trained personnel available.  They might try to reduce the vulnerability of coastal properties by building seawalls or other blockades, although these are very expensive. They could impose new zoning and development restrictions or “buy out” property owners in the most vulnerable areas.  They could adopt revised building codes requiring everyone to build new houses up on stilts or with first floor “breakaway panels” so that water can run through without destroying the whole structure.  Some of these are things that individual property owners can do on their own, most require permission of the local government or collective efforts.

In our surveys, many people are pessimistic about the ability and willingness of their local officials to take action.  They are not optimistic that officials will take climate change risks into account when they make new infrastructure investments today.  It makes no sense, for example, to build a wastewater treatment plant by the harbor (even if the town already owns the land there), if that facility is likely to be flooded out or destroyed multiple times during its 30-40 year life. But, if no one pays attention of the kinds of risks we have outlined, that’s just what will happen.  Can you imagine having to invest multiple times in rebuilding the same facility because no one bothered to take climate risks into account when they chose the site or designed the facility in the first place?

If we publish a list of possible actions your town can take to prepare for climate risks, along with a price tag for each possible move, it’s probably fair to say that there will be substantial disagreement about what should be done.  Some people won’t want the town to take any action.  Some will be indignant about having restrictions placed on what they can do with their own property (even though they will certainly expect to be rescued at town expense in the next big storm and will blame officials if they can no longer purchase property insurance because the town failed to take obvious risk reduction steps).  Until and unless the whole town gets together, educates itself about the likely risks, inventories possible adaptation strategies and reaches agreement on the best way to proceed, nothing is going to happen.

Our work has focused on designing and testing low-cost strategies for preparing coastal communities to take collective risk management decisions.  It turns out not to be that hard.  In a couple of hours, we can help large numbers of residents attending regularly scheduled meetings of organizations, social clubs, homeowner associations or business groups, to learn what they need to know and see how easy it is to generate informed agreements when people listen to each other and take each other’s views seriously. If this is something you want to your community to do, learn more at the New England Climate Adaption Project, the Science Impact Collaborative, or the Consensus Building Institute. 








Thursday, April 24, 2014

You've Got to Go Slow to Go Fast

[On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Consensus Building Institute, April, 2014]

I don’t like to put things off. I’m for getting everything done as quickly as possible.  And even though I’m trained as a planner, I’ve always been more focused on the present than the future.  So, when we started the Consensus Building Institute (CBI) in 1983, I was committed to moving quickly to launch a not-for-profit organization that would offer mediation and other neutral services in as many locations as possible, as quickly as possible.  We didn’t have a business plan. What I told prospective clients was that we could help them address almost any kind of conflict by (1) talking with all the disputants privately and confidentially, (2) organizing training or other capacity-building activities that would prepare them to engage in joint problem-solving, (3) undertaking background research that might shed light on relevant lessons learned elsewhere, and (4) facilitating face-to-face conversations or problem-solving efforts that could lead to mutually advantageous outcomes.  It took some years for me to realize that people and organizations dealing with difficult conflicts are not inclined to move quickly in new and different ways, even though I was convinced we could be of immediate assistance. Most had no idea about the ways in which professional neutrals can add value.

Twenty years later, CBI operates in a different way.  We now tell potential clients that they must “go slow to go fast” (an argument, by the way, that I eventually introduced in my book Breaking the Impasse in 1987).  Why? Why can’t people, groups and organizations move quickly to deploy consensus-building services or switch from a zero-sum approach to a mutual gains approach to decision-making?  There are three important answers to this question that our first twenty years have taught us.  First, doing things in a new way is likely to seem risky (even if the old way of doing things isn’t working).  Second, no one in a position of power wants to give up control, and many think that the addition of a professional neutral means that someone will be taking over from them.  Third, even if we have identified a champion in an organization, fully committed to consensus building, that individual needs time to bring their organization along.

Doing Things in a New Way Seems Risky

Even though the advantages of consensus building may be clear to us, we need to help clients understand exactly how this new way of working will unfold.  They need to feel confident enough about what we are proposing to explain it to others (who may be skeptical).  Whatever dangers or threats they see, must be addressed, carefully and slowly. We need to get people to understand that consensus building is not just a good idea in theory but that there are ways in practice of minimizing any risks attached to moving in a new direction or doing things in a new way.

People in Power See Mediation As a Threat

People still confuse mediation or consensus building with arbitration. That is, they think neutrals will impose judgments rather than helping the parties reach informed agreements. People in the middle of disputes or conflicts tend to think in win-lose terms.  So, they are unlikely to believe, at the outset, that all-gain solutions are possible.

Consensus building Requires Organizational Not Just
Individual Commitment

Even in the short run, someone who wants to advocate consensus building needs to sell others in their organization on the idea.

We want to leave problem-solving capabilities in place that do not hinge on our involvement going forward.  In a sense, we want to put ourselves out of a job by building our clients’ problem-solving capabilities.  (I know some people think that’s not a good business strategy, but I disagree.  Satisfied clients we have empowered to handle things on their own are much more likely to recommend us than those dependent on us, and often they want us to partner with them on complicated projects.)

I’m excited to be part of this wonderful effort to help CBI look ahead twenty years.   Now that we know that we have to go slow to go fast, I’m confident we can use build our knowledge base and enable a wide array of new clients to apply consensus building to water, food, energy and other disputes in our increasingly constrained world.