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The Right Kind of Conflict

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Your thoughtful responses to my blog on being a "referee" got me thinking generally about conflict in companies. It seems that some types of conflict are just naturally intrinsic to organizations. Like the conflict between sales and production. In a healthy company the two departments are unified in their goal to advance the company as a whole, but sometimes the success of one department makes life tougher on the other.

If the sales department suddenly starts selling more product than the production department is able to produce, the sparks often start flying -- as sales folk get grumpy about slower delivery times, declining customer satisfaction, and the delayed payment of commissions (if commissions are paid on shipped product). On the other hand, when sales are soft, production people get cross, because capacity utilization goes down and costs go up -- costs that the production people often feel responsible for managing carefully.

Rob White, a friend of mine, noticed this cycle of conflict a few years back in his concrete pipe manufacturing company and came up with a novel solution. He decided that this kind of sales/production conflict was "normal" since it arose out of two departments, in good faith, trying to optimize two processes that could naturally run at cross purposes sometimes (sell as many as you can vs. produce as efficiently as possible). Rob decided that, since the conflict was the normal, built-in conflict, what was needed wasn't a way to get rid of the conflict but a way to help people in his organization manage the conflict better.

Here's what he did: He bought a stuffed monkey and took it to the office. He called a staff meeting, and explained that he had hired a new staff member, and he pointed to the monkey. When the sales department believed it was about to produce more orders than the production department could readily produce, the sales vice president would walk down to the production VP's office and hand him the monkey. "Now the monkey's on your back," he would say. "Tell us how we in the sales department can help." And when the production department saw production volumes shrink to the point that capacity utilization was suffering, the production VP would carry the monkey back to the sales VP's office to signal that the company needed more sales.

Rob tells me the idea worked great for his company. His theory as to why it worked? He thinks it helped people throughout the company be more empathetic to the department that was temporarily under the gun -- the one with the monkey on its back.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as "normal" conflict -- conflict that is just naturally built into organizations? What other conflicts are normal in a company besides the sales/production conflict? How do you distinguish between this kind of conflict and conflict that is not normal or is destructive? What do you think of Rob's monkey idea?

Last updated: Jan 28, 2008




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