"The time has come," the Walrus said./ To talk of many things:/ Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—/ Of cabbages—and kings—/ And why the sea is boiling hot—/ And whether pigs have wings." Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Older readers will recall President Lyndon Johnson’s famous use of that phrase as he invited opposing politicians to join him in deal making. Although history shows that after ‘reasoning’ with ol’ Lyndon you almost always walked out scratching your head, counting your fingers, and wondering after the health of your wallet. But it’s hard to say no to your counterparty when he issues a civil invitation to come and reason together about a disagreement you may have. It’s the penultimate invitation during a dispute that quickly achieves ultimate status, the more publicly it is issued.
In these pages we now have a significant history of debating literally every issue under the sun (well, almost); I have yet to find a single subject that has been out of bounds. Now that doesn’t mean that we always conduct ourselves in ways that generate light instead of contributing to global warming. But most of us do try to put our best foot forward instead of in our mouths.
In spite of that, we more often than not wind up talking way past each other, realizing that we are really trying to convince the anonymous middle road reader – I’m assured that they do exist – who pores over our deft arguments that firmly nail our stand. Quite often these arguments wind up sounding daft instead. So I’m going to list some steps that in my field have almost always led to a working compromise or even a meeting of the minds. And applying this discipline to the business side of things, I have seen amazement in people new to the approach. They are astounded by how easy it is to come to a closure – whether that means a working agreement, or a detailed understanding why none is possible, and where the ‘give’ must occur to make progress.
My consternation has always been that so few people understand or use this straightforward method to sort out their differences. And, as you may have guessed, I have found the people of various hues of collectivism to be most resistant to this process. So here are the steps –
1. What’s your objective or purpose in resolving the problem/dispute. This can be stated in words. All parties don’t necessarily have to agree on the objective, but they should know what each is trying to achieve.
2. How will you measure progress/achievement? What is the metric that will satisfy or confirm for you that you are either making progress or achieving your objective? The metric can be a proxy – e.g. number of marriage licenses issued for, say, the number of new households formed, or for the survival of the institution of marriage.
3. It would be useful if the parties agreed on the metric, even though their stated objective or purpose would be at variance.
4. Are some kinds of re/solutions unacceptable? Are there any constraints on the alternative solutions to be considered? What are they?
5. Generating alternative solutions is the hard part, and anyone can now participate, whether they agree on the objective or the evaluating metric.
6. Are there any data sources for input to the metric that will not be accepted – i.e. how will the input data be vetted. Here one can posit that some data set is correct, and return to its acceptance at a later time. Hypothetical data can also be used to determine the sensitivity of the metric to variations in or accuracy of the data – i.e. does it make a significant difference?
7. Put the ‘solutions’ through the metric. Calculate the value(s) of the metric(s) and see what kind of changes in the solution alternatives will help maximize (or minimize) the metric. At this point all parties should be closing in on agreement, or knowing why their effort is turning out fruitless. Learning will have taken place.
8. If there is a will, go back a few steps, change things and try again. But stick to the paradigm.
What if your counterpart doesn’t want to play this game? What if he just wants to shout his (baseless?) opinion past you. Then you know he’s not serious and has an agenda in the debate not based on any acceptable form of reason, and that he’s probably there to jack you around.
Once more –
1. State objective/purpose
2. Select/define progress measure
3. Constrain solution/outcome alternatives
4. Generate/present alternatives
5. Crank data for solution(s) through metric
6. Evaluate results