As someone who has worked on software projects for many years, I have found that every project has one thing in common. Conflict is the one thing that you will always encounter. This is usually due to lots of really smart people working together to solve a unique set of problems in a constrained time box. Working through those conflicts in a systematic and healthy way is how you solve problems efficiently and sustainably.
What I have learned from Eli Goldratt, the founder of the Theory of Constraints (TOC), is that conflict is usually the outcome of assumptions. Finding and working through the assumptions of the two conflicting parties is the key to finding a win-win solution.
Goldratt provides 6 thinking processes as part of TOC and two of them are systematic approaches for resolving conflict. These thinking processes are Evaporating Cloud (Conflict Resolution Diagram) and Current Reality Tree (CRT). The evaporating cloud process is the simpler approach that can be used to solve most conflicts and is a frequently used tool in my toolbelt.
Win-win Solutions Instead of Compromise
Eli Goldratt emphasized the importance of finding win-win solutions rather than settling for compromises. In his book "The Haystack Syndrome: Sifting Information Out of the Data Ocean," Goldratt discussed compromises and their limitations in resolving conflicts.
Goldratt argued that compromises often lead to suboptimal outcomes because they typically involve sacrificing one aspect to gain in another. He believed that compromises often perpetuate conflicts and prevent the discovery of innovative solutions that could potentially eliminate the conflict altogether.
Instead of seeking compromises, Goldratt advocated for a systematic approach to conflict resolution that focuses on identifying and challenging the underlying assumptions causing the conflict. He believed that by examining and questioning these assumptions, it becomes possible to find creative solutions that can satisfy the interests of all parties involved, leading to win-win outcomes.
Goldratt's approach encourages thinking beyond the limitations imposed by compromises and striving for breakthrough solutions that address the root causes of conflicts. By challenging assumptions and seeking alternative perspectives, it is possible to identify win-win solutions that can yield better results and resolve conflicts more effectively.
An evaporating cloud, also known as a conflict resolution diagram or a dilemma resolution diagram, is a tool used in the Theory of Constraints (TOC) to analyze and resolve conflicts or dilemmas that arise within a system. It is a graphical representation that helps identify the underlying assumptions and conflicting assumptions behind the conflict and facilitates finding a win-win solution.
By constructing the evaporating cloud, the conflicting assumptions can be made explicit, allowing the parties to examine and challenge their assumptions. This process often involves brainstorming and considering different perspectives and possibilities. The objective is to find a resolution that eliminates the conflict by transforming the clouds, thereby "evaporating" the dilemma.
Creating an Evaporating Cloud
There are few systematic steps to creating an Evaporating Cloud. This thinking process can be done as a group or many times I build this diagram in my head to think through a conflict to identify solutions.
The power of doing this as a group is that it helps everyone focus on putting the pieces of the puzzle on the board so that it can be analyzed from the different perspectives. In other words the conversation becomes less emotional and more logical.
Steps to the Evaporating Cloud thinking process:
- Write a factual and objective narrative of the problem
- Create the cloud diagram (shown below)
- Check the logical statements of the cloud
- Identify the assumptions behind the logical connections
- Construct a win-win solution
[B] ← [D ] [A]
/ ↑ / \
[A] conflict OR [B] [C]
\ ↓ ↑ ↑
[C] ← [D’] [D] ↔ [D’]
- D => What action does the other side want to do or feel pressure to do?
- D` => What action do I want to do?
- C => What need is satisfied by my action in D`?
- B => What action is satisfied by action in D?
- A => What common objective will be achieved by meeting both B and C?
Let's consider an example of an evaporating cloud related to a common workplace conflict:
Objective: Highly Productive Team
- The team must work as many hours as possible
- The team must adhere to regular working hours
- working more hours will increase output
- refreshed workers will be more efficient
- Assumption A: Working longer hours leads to increased productivity.
- Assumption B: Maintaining work-life balance requires strict adherence to regular working hours.
- Team members experience burnout and decreased morale due to excessive workload.
- Productivity suffers due to fatigue and lack of motivation.
[Increase hours worked] ← [Work Overtime]
[Highly Productive Team] conflict
[Reduce burnout] ← [Keep to Regular Hours]
If we look for the compromise in this situation, we will attempt to make the parties happy, but at the expense of the overall objective which is a Highly Productive Team. To resolve this conflict and find a win-win solution, we can introduce alternative assumptions or changes to help find the incorrect assumption.
Assumption A`: Focusing on efficiency and prioritizing tasks leads to increased productivity, regardless of the number of working hours.
Assumption B': Encouraging flexibility in working hours and allowing for work-life integration can maintain work-life balance without sacrificing productivity.
By challenging and replacing the conflicting assumptions, the team can explore strategies that emphasize efficiency, task prioritization, and flexible working arrangements. This approach can help increase productivity while ensuring a healthier work-life balance, ultimately resolving the conflict and achieving the desired objective.
The evaporating cloud technique helps foster communication, understanding, and collaboration between conflicting parties. It encourages them to question their assumptions and explore alternative viewpoints, leading to creative solutions that address the conflict while still achieving the desired objective.
Evaporate the cloud (02:04)