When a conflict has been going on for a while, other ancillary conflicts tend to sprout around it. And sometimes those ancillary conflicts will linger even once the central conflict is resolved. It is the nature of conflict and here’s what to do about it.
Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation, puts it this way: “There is the problem you know you are trying to solve–think of that as an oak tree–and then there are all the other problems–think of these as saplings–that sprouted from the acorns that fell around it. And these problems remain after you cut the oak tree down.”
And he tells a great story to illustrate his point. In his new book with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (affiliate link), Catmull describes the way the movie-makers at Pixar met collaboratively for 13 years around a long conference table. They thought they were exemplifying the fundamental Pixar belief that unhindered communication was key, no matter what your position in the company. They placed Pixar’s creative leaders in the center chairs for greater accessibility to those in the room. They used name placards for seating arrangements that would enhance communication. They encouraged everyone to speak their mind.
But it turned out their conference table was hindering them. Eye contact was difficult at such a long table. The further from the center seats team members were, the more peripheral they felt to the conversations and decisions. It took a long time for the leaders to notice something amiss because, from where they sat, nothing felt amiss–they didn’t feel excluded.
Then one day they happened to have a meeting in a smaller room with a square table. They noticed that eye contact was automatic–no one had to lean way forward and crane their necks to see another who was speaking. They noticed that the interplay was better, the exchange of ideas more free-flowing, and that people felt free to speak up.
So they got rid of the old long table and revamped the setup, fully expecting that what they’d experienced in the smaller room would translate to their regular meeting room. But it didn’t. Explains Catmull,
Still, interestingly , there were remnants of that problem that did not immediately vanish just because we’d solved it. For example, the next time I walked into West One, I saw the brand-new table, arranged–as requested–in a more intimate square that made it possible for more people to interact at once. But the table was adorned with the same old place cards! While we’d fixed the key problem that had made place cards seem necessary, the cards themselves had become a tradition that would continue until we specifically dismantled it. This wasn’t as troubling an issue as the table itself, but it was something we had to address because cards implied hierarchy, and that was precisely what we were trying to avoid. When Andrew Stanton, one of our directors, entered the meeting room that morning, he grabbed several place cards and began randomly moving them around, narrating as he went. “We don’t need these anymore!” he said in a way that everyone in the room grasped. Only then did we succeed in eliminating this ancillary problem.
This is the nature of management. Decisions are made, usually for good reasons, which in turn prompt other decisions. So when problems arise–and they always do–disentangling them is not as simple as correcting the original error. Often, finding a solution is a multi-step endeavor.
This is the nature of conflict resolution, too. Don’t get disillusioned when you sort out a big conflict only to discover tension and smaller conflicts still linger. All is not lost and you certainly shouldn’t throw in the towel. Stay your course, pick up the acorns, and deal with the saplings.
Image source: derRenner