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CONFLICT and COLLABORATION:  A “Both/And” View of Organizations


by Barry Sugarman


 What enables an organization to achieve long-term success, through several phases of renewal or reinvention ( i.e. Dynamic Capability )?

It takes many success factors; here we highlight the “Both/And Factor“.

This is the ability to manage certain conflicts between pairs of necessary elements that seem to be mutually incompatible.

This requires Both/And (paradoxical) thinking in practice to find solutions.



The full explanation of this approach synthesizes several elements from org. research. It highlights collaboration as the life-blood of value creation and how organizational learning can protect and/or restore vital collaborative links (relationships) between people in units and levels of the org. . Resilience is the ability to overcome such disruptions.  here I focus on those produced by Both/And conflicts.


Research on ambidextrous management has produced important findings on how some of these threats can be turned into assets and I develop a conflict management approach that is yet broader in scope.

A folksy summary of this approach would say that it shows how "odd couples" that cannot tolerate each other find a way to collaborate, finding how some of their differences can become assets in "productive partnerships". 


The full article was published in Research in Org. Change & Development, vol. 22, Emerald.



"The learning organization" has been an influential and elusive idea and ideal. This image portrays an organization where many members work to improve their contribution and that of their team and department, as well as the collective effectiveness of the whole. They see that they can pursue goals that they care about through working together here (shared vision). And they have input into shaping norms for collaborative work (team learning) (Senge,1990; Edmondson, 2013) collective improvement (i.e. organiz-ational learning) results. This depends on the alignment of individuals and sub-systems with a shared vision and strategy for the whole.

Disagreements over how to collaborate must be overcome, so the crucial team learning is about how to manage their working relationships (process) as well as learning to improve the technical work process.

Relational Collaboration.

 Some collaboration conflicts or breakdowns are to be expected in any organization, even during any periods of relative calm. But sudden external changes, internal accidents, and abrupt changes in policy are all apt to cause significant disruption, involving extra stress on some collaboration links, leading to breakdown. That disruption makes it too hard for one party or more to provide its contribution without some compensatory change. What change?


This can be explored and negotiated by the parties involved, through a process of problem solving and learning, or by management edict. In addition to the value chains and value network within the Operational Core, where collaboration is clear and concrete, collaboration is equally important between large units and between all operational units and central infrastructures (e.g. IT, HR, accounting, communications).


In other words, Fast and friendly flexibility in collaboration links has major benefits for an organization's agility and sustainability. "Friendly" at minimum means good and respectful treatment for employees and a culture that prioritizes careful and caring cultivation of workplace relationships. "Friendly" in Gittell's formulation (2003) means a lot of respect and caring in all workplace relationships. The poster company that exemplifies this approach is Southwest Airways (SWA), also noted for its sustained profitability, unique in the troubled airline industry.





Conflict is to be expected -- even wthin small groups and more so in-between groups that must collaborate within a large organization. When conflict is evaded it moves underground where it is liable to cause more damage;  so conflict management is an essential part of the job. Conflict identifies important problems that must  be addressed. Conflict (disagreement) over solutions can contribute to more rigorous assessment.


Change as a constant. Even when conflicts get addressed, sooner or later those arrange-ments are liable to be disrupted by unexpected changes. As an organization faces frequent challenges from its  environments, adjusting its macro strategy requires its leaders to learn from the ideas and information of many members and stakeholders. I.e. there are both micro and macro levels to "organizational learning" (OL). Micro level, incremental operational changes among front-line workers and team leaders can coordinate and support (or discourage) those. At the macro level the overall strategy and direction of the organization may be changed -- sometimes even radically, either due to crisis, take-over and a new "reform" regime, or through planned renewal.


Brief Flashback. Organization theory begins some hundred years ago with bureaucracy as the key concept, thanks to Max Weber. He considered it a major contributor to human civilization. The Pharaohs, the Roman Empire, any big government, our Industrial Revolution, Exxon, Toyota, and Tata Industries -- they all require bureaucracy. Since the Stone Age we cannot live without it. But now we see its limitations. In the last few decades org. theory has become more about searching for un-bureaucratic alternatives, innovation and organizational agility. Theories based on self-organizing systems and organizational learning have become important.


Org. theory started out focused on one model, the bureaucratic pyramid. Later came far more diverse theories and "images". Now we are seeing that no single-focus model can be sufficient because organizations are faced with paradoxical conflicts needing to satisfy pairs of requirements that seem to be incompatible. A prime example is the need for both exploration (innovation) and exploitation. Both must be available to a firm that wants to outlive its first success. This presents tough challenges for design and conflict management. Forming and leading an organization requires coping with important conflicting demands and pressures -- especially certain classic dualities. The deals or arrangement may be embedded in structures, policies and work practices, especially in the collaborative links between teams and units. Due to external changes and internal dynamics these arrangements are frequently disrupted. In order to renegotiate the terms of collaboration, to find a new win-win solution, paradoxical thinking may be required, ideally resulting in a "golden duality" where the "odd (conflictual) couple" becomes "a productive partnership".






Common Life-cycle, Conflict of Principles.


A commonly observed organizational life-cycle begins with an innovative start-up that gains initial success, expands and turns into a large bureaucracy. Hoping to generate renewal and prevent its own obsolescence, leaders of a successful firm may sponsor new ventures that could (if successful) later replace the current cash-cows.


But often the new venture is smothered or sabotaged by the dominant culture and the old guard. Or, if it is segregated and survives, the successful new venture/model (and what it can teach the firm) is still rejected by the older majority.

That is the classic paradox of "the organizational immune system"  rejecting the would-be rescuer.Unless we accept that every firm can only enjoy one generation of success, that problem of internal organizational renewal must be solved. But achieving success for the first generation seems in conflict with success for the next one, and vice versa. This is where the research on ambidextrous organizations is very important  for organizational innovation and renewal (dynamic capability).

Ambidexterity requires separate structural units for innovation (or exploration) and mainstream management of the "cash cow" business units (or exploitation), each with different competencies and cultures. The innovation unit needs protection from the dominant (mainstream) culture and systems of the host company. Both new and old units need to be overseen and guided by an ambidextrous top management team.


That team needs to understand the need for both units: the goal is, not just to protect the weaker unit but to help it by leveraging certain mainstream assets, and to learn from the innovation (Tushman & O’Reilly, 1997; O’Reilly & Tushman, 2004; 2011; Smith & Tushman, 2005).

Not only must each unit (old and new) learn from the other but all must learn from the struggle to manage ambidextrously.

The image or metaphor of managerial ambidexterity is crucial. Two hands with different styles (like a pianist) coordinated by a third team (intelligence.)

 Two principles which mutually conflict must be separated but not segregated; what each of them brings must be valued and the paradox of their conflict must be accepted. Alignment is no longer the ideal throughout. (The org. immune system imposes total alignment as it squashes or socializes the new venture.) These more complex rules seem "inconsistent" " inefficient" and "illogical" by traditional thinking.

We have a new mental model and it requires some new leadership policies and practices, including a common-fate incentive system for the top  manager team.

How can an organization continue to generate significant innovations -- not just tweaking the old product/market formula. In one short sentence:

Ambidexterity is today our best clue to dynamic capability. Ambidexterity research may be the start of a new era in org. science. This involves paying careful attention to paradoxical dualities. In effect matrix management is back in full force -- though earlier rejected by many as unfeasible. Its dual authority lines each represents one set of conflicting forces that must be managed for success.

Consider an electrical analogy: two opposite poles (+ and -) create dangerous electric shocks and fires unless they are harnessed by electric motors, heaters, amplifiers, etc. to produce usable value. Similarly in an organizational setting an “odd couple” (two units with very different approaches and interests) can become productive partners within their organization -- under certain conditions.

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