How To Avoid A Business Divorce

My new client’s consultancy business was on the brink of collapse. It had happy customers, a full order book, and reasonable cashflow… but the two partners at the centre of the company were at daggers drawn.

They were bickering constantly. Every email exchange ended in an argument. Contractors felt under pressure to take sides. Worst of all, the customers were starting to notice.

But neither of the partners was ready to hold out an olive branch. They didn’t even want to talk on the phone, let alone meet up.

So how did I tackle the situation using Collaboration Dynamics? Young angry businessmanIt feels like an over-simplification to give a step-by-step process, but to answer a colleague’s question, here goes:

  1. A short phone conversation with each of the partners. I wanted to establish, first, what each of them wanted, irrespective of the other party. Was either of them actually looking for a way out of the business? In fact, we soon established that both wanted to stay in the business, to have a happy and workmanlike relationship, and that they would be willing to give working with me a try.
  2. The next phase got down to business with the partners and a couple of senior colleagues. Again, I spoke to each individually by phone. This time, I wanted to help each person to discover their answer to the question: “When you are working at your best, you are like… what?”
  3. Armed with pictures of their answers drawn from the internet (one even brought a video) the players came together for an online meeting. That’s when the magic happened! Hearing about their colleagues’ metaphors opened windows into their worlds. If one partner loved to work like an express train, the other like a circus juggler, no wonder they weren’t seeing eye to eye!
  4. Further group conversations helped to build everyone’s skills in listening, inquiry and advocacy – the three essential skills for collaboration. At the same time, new norms for communication were established. In particular, the partners found new ways to challenge each other’s views without being disrespectful.

We haven’t done any head-on “conflict resolution”. Every innovative organisation needs conflict – it’s an essential part of the creative process.

In reality, the partners’ differences were not about the details under discussion, but about the way they were being discussed. Change that context, and the issues withered away.

There’ll be more work to do with this organisation: the partners are keen for me to work with a wider group of contractors, and possibly even some customers, to develop their collaboration skills. But at least we’ve avoided a business divorce!

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