In life and business, we frequently encounter conflict situations. These are the games on life’s infinite chessboard. Most people go through life on a continual streak of defeat. Despite their best efforts, they are passed over for promotions, fired from their jobs, dumped by their significant others, or excluded from the in-crowd. Many justify these outcomes by imagining complicated systems of people and organizations all conspiring to keep them down. In reality, as we know, there are no such conspiracies. There are only the rules of the game. The game has good players and bad players.
We can use a simple method to analyze conflict situations. Doing so continually will gradually improve our skill in the game.
A conflict situation is any situation between two or more parties, where the parties have divergent goals or sets of goals. In a conflict situation, each party is attempting to impose their desired goal on the interaction. Since the goals are divergent, there is often a tension in the interaction. For example:
Business or contract negotiations,
Disagreements with colleagues,
While these situations are not directly combative, they generally involve multiple parties with divergent goals. Thus it is useful to categorize them as conflict situations. By doing so we may analyze them more readily.
In order to analyze a conflict situation, we must understand our opponent’s strategy and our own strategy. There are four components to the analysis: Environment, Ends, Means, and Elements.
Before we can analyze any conflict situation, we must understand the environment in which it occurs. In any environment, there are dynamic events that we cannot forecast and constant components that we can understand. While we can often explain dynamic events after the fact, forecasting them with consistency is very difficult. We can, however, understand the things that are unlikely to change in the conflict situation. Constants give us a foundation upon which to understand an interaction.
The constants in a situation will vary, but we can identify them by examining the things that cannot change in the situation. In the case of a political argument, some examples of constants are
The policies championed by each side
The size and makeup of the audience
The personality of each participant
The occasion upon which the argument broke out (e.g. Thanksgiving dinner, Twitter, etc)
Different actions will be appropriate in different environments, and it is important to understand how the environment directs the consequences of those actions.
The ends, or objectives, in a conflict situation are the goals or objectives that each participant wishes to achieve. An end can be limited or unlimited in its scope. We should have a clear understanding of the set of each participant's ends in order to analyze their decisions and the elements of their strategy.
In the example of dating, one person might have the unlimited objective of getting married, raising a family, and spending a life with their partner. Another person might have the limited objective of just getting laid.
In business, a limited objective might be to secure a demo with an important potential customer. An unlimited objective might be to acquire that customer at any cost.
The means in a conflict situation are the instruments of power that a party can leverage in order to achieve their goal. The application of those means can be either limited or unlimited.
In the case of customer acquisition in business, for example, the available means are information, used to learn about and persuade the customer; economics, used to negotiate a price or deal; diplomacy, used to build a relationship with the customer; and development, used to adapt the product to the customer’s use case.
The application of these means can be limited or unlimited in scope. In the customer acquisition example, a limited scope might be to use the business’s development instrument to build a small feature for a customer to demonstrate good faith. An unlimited scope might be to develop whatever the customer wants given that they have agreed to the acquisition.
The elements of each participant’s strategy can be categorized into various buckets. Most real world strategies will have elements of many different buckets.
The first categorization is whether the strategy is offensive or defensive. An offensive strategy is one whose ends serve to increase the relative power or influence of the participant. A defensive strategy is one whose ends serve to protect the relative power or influence of the participant.
The second categorization is whether the strategy is symmetric or asymmetric. A symmetric strategy is one in which the conflict participant attempts to match the opponent strength for strength, as in a rhetorical argument. An asymmetric strategy is one in which a conflict participant applies one means or instrument in such a way that the opponent cannot respond in kind. Poisoning is an asymmetric strategy. Complaining to management about a colleague. Cheating.
The third categorization is whether the strategy has a deterrent property, and whether that deterrence is one of denial or reprisal. Denial is a symmetric strategy, and deters an opponent by convincing them that their plan will fail. Reprisal is an asymmetric strategy, and persuades an opponent that the benefit from their plan does not merit the cost. Overlaps in strategies of deterrence are common.
The fourth categorization is whether the strategy is standardized or tailored. A tailored strategy is one that has been custom designed for a given conflict situation. A standardized strategy is a default strategy or a consistent strategy. For example, in dating, if you have an unlimited objective to share a life with your partner, a standardized element of strategy you might use is never to cheat. In rapidly developing situations, a standardized strategy might be used to buy time to adopt a strategy tailored for the given conflict situation.
The fifth categorization is whether the strategy is intentional or default. An intentional strategy is developed out of rational consideration of all options and their likely implications. A default strategy is dictated by circumstances or determined by ideology or unconscious assumptions. A default strategy of getting defensive when insulted is adopted when insecurity overrides rationality.
By analyzing the strategic components—the environment, the ends, the means, and the strategic elements—we can develop a formal understanding of any conflict situation. It’s important to note that ‘form’ is not the same thing as ‘formula’, and any one-size-fits-all approach to conflict analysis will lead to failure in understanding. If we are able to developed a formal analysis of a situation, we can use that ability to develop an intuition for good and bad strategy, strategy-making, and counterstrategy. We encounter conflict situations on a daily basis, and over time the strategic intuition we develop through disciplined analysis will serve as a Swiss army knife to adapt to any given context, at any scale.
Author's Note: This post owes much of its form to the warrior poets over at the United States Marine Corps, and their magnificent Marine Corps Doctrinal Publications.