Dilemmas: from conflict to innovation


Dilemmas: from conflict to innovation

Surface dilemmas, acknowledge diversity, foster innovation

Changing our practices, implementing innovation, or achieving an organizational strategy requires the collaboration of multiple stakeholders. Employees, customers, leaders bring dissimilar important insights to the table, and often prefer different courses of action. As a result, we are constantly encountering dilemmas. At Deloitte we believe that a constructive management of dilemmas fosters creativity and innovation.

Although we tend to associate dilemmas with situations of impasse, they offer us the possibility of finding solutions that bridge seemingly competing demands. Realizing the potential of dilemmas implies not accepting less than optimal tradeoffs – but instead, adopting integrative thinking. The use of collaboration tools - like the Dilemma Cube - helps to make dilemmas explicit and to find solutions that reconcile apparent opposites.

What should take preference: safety or cost saving? Compliance or innovation? Agility or alignment? Stakeholders demand clarity, often opposing types of clarity. Shareholders demand high dividends but fatal incidents are unacceptable for management. Regulatory bodies may impose serious penalties if companies fail to comply with their rules, whilst technologically savvy new entrants threaten a company’s sheer existence.

Decision makers are well aware of the pervasiveness of dilemmas*: situations in which various options seem equally (un-)desirable and there is not a clear course of action to follow. When multiple stakeholders need to make a collective decision, they bring dissimilar interpretations to the table and have different preferences, so dilemmas naturally occur.

Not having a clear preference leads to not knowing what to do. Not surprisingly, dilemmas can be the source of indecision and delays in decision-making processes. As a result, we associate dilemmas to paralysis and conflict. The resulting feeling of paralysis is unbearable for most executives hence they typically gloss it over, deny it or ignore it. Their behavior typically has two dire consequences: poor decisions characterized by less than optimal trade-offs, or continuation of the status quo with alienated stakeholders who feel management does not take their viewpoints and interests seriously.

The opportunities of dilemmas and integrative thinking

However, dilemmas offer us the opportunity of looking at situations under different angles, exploring the development of solutions that connect competing preferences. At Deloitte we believe that a constructive management of dilemmas fosters creativity and innovation. The key to take advantage of these dilemmas is not to be content with less than optimal tradeoffs, but to adopt integrative thinking. Realizing the potential of dilemmas requires having an opposable mind: an attitude in which opposition is possible and desirable. The main question: how can we promote integrative thinking in our practices?

Making dilemmas explicit to realize their potential

Without awareness of the origin of the dilemmas, embracing opposites and realizing their potential is next to impossible. It is particularly important to gain an understanding of the different perspectives about issues at stake, instead of considering dilemmas as irreconcilable opposites –hence the tendency to make an either/or choice-, or simply dismissing alternative views and options. This can be achieved by following three steps:

  1. Create an environment in which people feel comfortable to express their views, to contradict senior managers and to share news, especially when it is bad. 
  2. Investigate underlying assumptions of competing perspectives in order to surface possible dilemmas. 
  3. Foster creativity by using approaches and philosophies suited to bridge apparently opposing needs and demands. 
Dilemma Cube

From conflict to solution: using the Dilemma Cube in a land use project

Decision making processes can be lengthy and cumbersome; land use planning projects are typical examples. Budget cuts in the public sector and the need to satisfy various disparate societal demands lead to seemingly never-ending discussions (‘poldering’) about which functional combinations to include in a public space. In a participative project in the Netherlands, a group of stakeholders wanted to expand an existing recreational harbor, but they met with strong opposition from local organizations. After several years of discussion, it seemed difficult to reach an agreement about what to build.

A workshop session brought together seven stakeholders representing dissimilar interests: from protecting the regional economy to environmental concerns. The use of a tried and tested collaboration tool, the Dilemma Cube, helped to disrupt the existing patterns of behavior that were creating an impasse in decision-making.
The Dilemma Cube is a real cube, with a wooden structure. Each side of the cube represents interrelated themes in a project, program or situation. For this land use project, the lateral sides of the Dilemma Cube characterized (1) recreation, (2) nature, (3) business, and (4) an open theme to provide flexibility.

The cube helps to link actions (or the lack thereof) with effects, revealing positive and negative interdependencies respectively. Using the Dilemma Cube is like playing a serious game: once the issue is clear, participants take turns to add the actions, effects and interconnections they consider important. As a result, the Dilemma Cube acts as a canvas in which all participants jointly visualize the dilemmas that are present in a situation.

Taking turns, the seven stakeholders involved in the land use project felt comfortable to share their viewpoints and contradict existing assumptions about what was best for the area. After a few hours it became clear that expanding the recreational harbor had a positive effect on the regional economy, but it would also have detrimental consequences for nature areas. At the same time, dedicating the budget to the preservation of nature would not allow for boosting of the local economy, which was a priority of the municipality.

This was the first time stakeholders openly discussed these conflicting interpretations. Until then the dilemmas had the shape of the proverbial elephant in the room and had been causing serious paralysis. Now stakeholders understood the reason behind the impasse and started to discuss strategies to improve the economy while preserving nature. They finally realized that expanding the recreational harbor in a different direction, and developing “wet nature” was possible. In short: the constructive dialogue facilitated by the Dilemma Cube was the stepping-stone to turn conflict into opportunity.

Dilemma Cube

Using the dilemma cube to facilitate dialogue in complex situations

At Deloitte we apply the Dilemma Cube to facilitate dialogue in a multi-stakeholder setting to find creative strategies for complex issues. Developed during a doctoral research at the University of Twente , this scientifically proven tool has helped to find innovative solutions in infrastructure projects and in participatory sessions in municipalities.
The Dilemma Cube is:

  • Inclusive: all participants are invited to voice their interpretations and state their interests. 
  • 3-Dimensional: the 3-dimensional shape of the cube helps to visualize the interconnections between causes, effects, and issues at stake. 
  • Engaging: because it is a real and tangible tool, the dilemma cube is fun to work with. 
  • Versatile: it allows for application in many different contexts varying from strategy or policy design to change management and stakeholder engagement.

More information on dilemma's and integrated thinking?

Please contact Ronald Meijers via +31 (0)6 5121 4371 or Julieta Matos Cataño via +31 (0)88 288 1425.

*) We use the term ‘dilemmas’; literature suggests alternative terms like polarities, contradictions or paradoxes.

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