Stop your departments fighting?


If I had a dollar for every time a senior manager complained about departments fighting, I would be a Millionaire. It’s rare for departments not to fight. Is all conflict bad? Well, it depends. For example, listen to Michael Eisner’s comments in a Harvard Business Review article in 1999, common sense and conflict:


Disney, he says, is a company built on a powerful combination of institutionalised creative friction – an environment that produces a constant stream of ideas – and good, old-fashioned common sense – which “edits” those ideas for broad commercial appeal.  Together, he says, conflict and common sense yield creativity. And in business – no matter what business – creativity “has a way of cleaning up the balance sheet and making the income statement shine very brightly”.      


So, Eisner’s experience is conflict can be a creative force to drive your organisation forward. Underneath his experience are two things: one is a belief, and the other is a method.

To understand these two things, let’s examine two assumptions about conflict:

  1. Personalities cause conflict

  2. People can resolve conflict

1. Personalities Cause Conflict, only sometimes

Listen to any fight between departments, and within minutes you will hear: he is difficult as usual, or she never listens.  Bystanders casually observe, “It’s a personality clash”. An interesting question to ask is, are they like this with everyone and are they always like this? The answer will be “no they are not”.

Perhaps it is a personality clash. A quick way to diagnose is using one of the models of behaviour or thinking, DiSC or HBDI, which classify behaviour or thinking into one of four boxes.  If you and the person you are in conflict with are in diagonally opposite boxes, then you are different on two dimensions. In practice, you need to adapt your behaviour to suit their needs. Why bother? Simply, to get things done. Instead of wasting time in circular arguments, you can propose a way out of the argument that suits the other person’s style.  

When departments are fighting, only a small portion of fights are caused by personalities.  Situations cause most fights between two departments.  For example, one department could be overloaded (no time) or one department could be underloaded (too much time). Another cause could be conflicting demands: if they do A, then they can’t do B at the same time, so one activity has to wait. A quick question to help diagnose is: do these departments always fight (in our company and other companies?)  If so, take the advice of conflict expert, Roger Fisher: Separate the people from the problem.

2. People can resolve conflict, not often

 We assume people can resolve conflict, however often they don’t have the skills or the tools.

We often handle conflict poorly because we are each prisoners of our own thinking. We tend to judge differences, particularly when we think we know best.  Understanding differences is hard work. Frequently, we don’t know how to go about it.
— Professor Roger Fisher

One of the keys to resolving conflict or dealing with differences is being able to revise our thinking after fresh insights.  Most people find this difficult because of natural biases where they highlight evidence that supports their position. (Technically this is called Confirmation Bias.)  So, it’s tough to revise our thinking, but it’s tough for most people because they don’t have a method.

One method to stop the fighting, fast

One method that can help resolve conflict is our Rapid Results for Teams. A method that starts with problems and then follows Michael Eisner’s advice: produces a stream of ideas, using common sense to edit those ideas for commercial appeal.  One secret to success is separating generating ideas from selecting ideas.  Most conflict occurs when selecting ideas, usually so much conflict that both sides stop generating ideas and get stuck in circular arguments.

Two steps will help stop your departments fighting:

  1. Introduce DiSC or HBDI: so individuals understand each other better

  2. Give your departments a method to work together: so they can resolve conflict faster

Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.
— Walter Lippmann