Negotiating, finding common ground, and agreeing on the best approach to solving problems is never easy. Even if everyone came to the table with perfectly matched information, education, and opinions it wouldn’t guarantee and easy decision. And that scenario is about as impossible as it gets. In reality, every person you encounter has a unique set of ideas, beliefs, theories, and opinions. Sometimes, you can work through all the information at hand, and either come to find common ground and a mutually satisfactory solution, or the person with the most power or influence can force a decision, whether or not it is for the best.
But what about those scenarios where the decision makers are at an impasse and no agreement can be achieved? This often happens when the parties have strong opinions, beliefs, or vested interests in the outcome, and have staked a position and are expending all their efforts to defend that position? You can look no further than the US Congress to see this disaster scenario at play. If a discussion has reached this point, for all practical purposes it is impossible to move the discussion forward. Everyone is now focused on their position, and listening to and considering new ideas is difficult, if not completely blocked. In projects, I have found that this happens most often with competing business unit sponsors or among advocates of particular technologies or products. What can you do when you’re faced with the “no win” situation? Tell the team to Kobayashi Maru it!
For those of you out there who aren’t Star Trek fans and don’t know what the Kobayashi Maru is, here is a quick explanation. As part of training of Star Fleet officers, it was a simulation designed to be a test of leadership in the face of a “no-win” scenario. It was designed to evaluate the decision making capability of a prospective captain when every possible choice would have involved significant loss of life. Captain Kirk was famous for “beating the no-win situation” by reprogramming the scenario to allow for a new solution. While some saw this as cheating, he did receive “a commendation for original thinking”.
I use the phrase “Kobayashi Maru it” to mean go back and reframe the issue. Look for another avenue of approach. Create a new narrative to help the group see the question in a different way. Instead of trying to change someone’s beliefs, try to give them a different question to consider, one that is not at odds with their current beliefs.
This also works when you can’t find a solution to a problem. More often than I’d wish, I’ve worked on a project where we’ve stumbled across a problem we couldn’t solve. Either the technology was incapable of meeting the design spec, or we had unresolved competing requirements. Before surrendering and telling the sponsor that they can’t have the requested feature, we would conduct a brainstorming session to examine the intent of the requirement and look for other ways to meet the intent. This results in finding new design options or process changes that can be recommended to overcome the technical impasse.
We all face the “no-win” situation in work and in life, although granted not to the level of a galactic battlefield. But you still will face times when there is no perfect solution, people can’t come to agreement, and you are stuck and can’t move forward. Sometimes you really can’t win. But sometimes you can find a way through the problem. Lead your team through by posing a different question, asking for a different decision, or trying a different approach. It couldn’t hurt to try, and it might get you too “a commendation for original thinking.”