Samurai or ninja?

Imagine you are a Samurai. You are an “ultimate” fighting machine and expected to perform at the highest level. You have been highly trained and are ready to handle conflict … of a certain type. That type is the battlefield. Like the knights in Europe, the samurai were the product of a class structure where one expected face to face physical violence and it was “winner take all”. So it should be no great surprise that a class of warriors would be expected to meet that challenge. Picture yourself in that role.

How would you cope with a ninja? The ninja are also highly trained to be in conflict. But their training is not to confront the enemy at all. But to prevail by cunning.¬† This fun documentary gives the flavor of how the ninja functioned. One thing is clear. Your samurai training is no use here. All it does is pigeon hole you into a “type”, making your moves predictable to the crafty ninja.

Now think of this in terms of modern day conflict. Are you a samurai or a ninja?

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The Solution Can Be Hard to See

Carlotta Gall has written a shocking expose of how Pakistani institutions undermined the US military effort in Afghanistan. It is shocking that a key ally of the US might be secretly undermining a key US foreign policy objective. And it is more than that. it is infuriating given that Pakistan is a major recipient of US aid.

Let’s assume for a moment that she is right. What should happen next? This is a matter of conflict management. The answer depends on the ultimate goal of US policy. If the goal is to promote certain values, then the strategy should be value oriented. Other goals might take policy makers in other directions.

But let’s assume for now that the goal is to promote the values of democracy and respect for human rights. In this scenario, one has to admit that the strategy so far has not produced sustainable results. Even if the US military were to stay and fight on in Afghanistan, US focus on fighting the taliban, who in turn are protected and resupplied inside Pakistan produces never ending cycles of violence. It is not a solution.

So what is the solution? Put rather bluntly, the solution has to be set back the control of those people who are driving current policy in Pakistan. Why? If that policy does not change, nothing will change. How will that happen? This type of change has to come from within Pakistan. It cannot be forced. A good start might be a complete review of US policy towards Pakistan, including but not limited to its assistance policy.

While this may not satisfy people who would like to get revenge for what has happened, it is a rather radical step towards something that might produce sustainable results. Managing conflict, in other words, does not mean banging your head against the wall in the hope that it will fall down.

Knowing Your Opponent

It goes without saying that in conflict, one should focus on who is on the other side. It is obvious, right? It is obvious, and yet we often don’t.

Two examples.

During the US adventure in Afghanistan, the US thought it was fighting the Taliban. That, of course, seemed like a mismatch. Now, as the US prepares to pull out of Afghanistan in frustration after years and years of conflict, we begin to see who the real enemy was. It was an enemy inside Pakistan who the Americans had thought was a friend. It was the enemy who provided institutional support for the Taliban. And who is waiting for the US to pull out.

During the cold war, the west understood who the enemy was. It was “communist countries” most notably the USSR. Then the cold war ended. The USSR became Russia and gave up its communist ideology. Was it no longer an adversary? Well, it seemed that things had changed. But suddenly in 2014 Russia has invaded Ukraine and the west is caught flat footed. Perhaps we got it wrong in the first place.

My point here is a rather simple one. Knowing who your opponent is means more than identifying a person or an institution who poses a barrier to getting what you want. The reason is that we don’t fight against people.

After Crimea

Mr. Putin just announced to the Duma that Russia was annexing Crimea in order to protect the ethnic Russians who live there. It is a done deal. But it is not. The reason it is not a done deal goes to the argument underlying the decision. If it is legitimate to protect ethnic Russians living outside Russia by ignoring national borders, many countries bordering Russia find themselves suddenly at risk.

Right or wrong, one can see how this rash action has opened the door to a longer term conflict and it is very difficult to predict how this will turn out for all who now cannot avoid being part of it.

Conflict is like that.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

So sang Mick Jagger, though it appeared at the time that he was getting just about everything that he wanted. But he was right. The rest of us usually have to settle for less. And this frustration is a key aspect of conflict. We want, perhaps even need something but we cannot get it.

Think about this for a second. The more that you believe you need something, the more frustrated you get by being denied, right? So if you have never seen a car, you won’t crave a sports car. You might crave a beautiful horse instead. But once you are exposed to the storyline of what cars symbolize — stuff like freedom, status and so on — can you blame people for starting to believe that they need one?

Of course not. And this is the starting point of conflict. Notice how it can be created, used and overcome. Interesting!

Is Jeff Bezos Evil?

He seems like such a nice guy in interviews. But when you get behind the mask, Jeff Bezos is a very tough customer. In some ways similar to Steve Jobs (who may have been even tougher). So is this a bad thing or is this toughness — or if you want to be more polite, competitiveness — a necessary condition for success?

It is a critical question and the answer is more complex than it appears on the surface. First we should separate out nastiness from toughness. Being nasty is destructive of firm culture. As Sharpe put it in the TV series “Flogged men don’t stand and fight”. So we are not talking about deliberately causing embarrassment or pain (as former GE CEO, Jack Welch apparently enjoyed doing to his top managers).¬† But ruling out nastiness is just the first step.

The other extreme, softness, is equally ineffective. Sorry Roger Fisher and Bill Ury, when you are always striving to build relationships based on rational interest correlating, you can get royally “owned”. Just ask Barrack Obama about his experience “negotiating” with Congressional Republicans about raising the debt ceiling.

The fact is that Bezos and Jobs and other “tough customers” understand something about conflict. It is not always bad. Certain types of conflict¬† — those that produce higher stakes in collaboration — are needed to build focus. There is no way around this.

Crimea and Beyond

We should have seen it coming, right? Well, no one idd. No one expected that Mr. Putin would act as decisively (and perhaps rashly) as he did. Oops! But whatever happens next, we (in Europe and the US) need to accept something. We are no longer in the same situation we were just a short while ago. We are now in conflict. And it is time to pull out the conflict management tools.