Systems Design

Designing Conflict Resolution Systems

Created by Ken Cloke & Duncan Autrey, 2019

Discover the elements of systems and cultures that address conflict early and more effectively

  • Develop an understanding of what conflict resolution systems design is
  • Learn the reasons that systems support the strengthening of social/political organizations and help them be more agile and effective in the work they do
  • Discover the elements a system needs to support a culture that addresses conflict early and more effectively, thereby reducing the risks, negative effects, and costs of conflict

Reflection Questions

look closely at the conflicts that arise in an organization.

Building Conflict Capacity within Systems

A Conflict Resolution System is any process that can either prevent conflict or address conflict effectively, whether such conflict occurs between people or amongst groups within or between organizations. While people often behave badly during conflict, the possibility of profound personal and organizational learning and growth is always present in every conflict we encounter. Conflict resolution systems are the foundation.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. Henry David Thoreau

Unresolved conflicts within organizations can turn into a self-perpetuating cycle, negatively affecting mission, productivity, and relationships among colleagues.

Conflict resolution systems create and implement processes to allow for consistent, fair, regular methods for addressing and resolving any disputes that arise.  Conflict resolution systems also formalize dispute resolution practices, thereby increasing the ability of all involved to learn from the conflict and to improve their conflict resolution skills. The resources required to develop an effective conflict resolution system are not negligible — but are far less than the negative costs of organizational dysfunction.

Reasons to Design Conflict Resolution Systems

  • Prevent conflicts before they occur
  • Reduce the risks and costs of conflicts once they arise
  • Create inexpensive internal processes to manage and resolve conflict and to provide a fair, fast, internal forum for final resolution
  • Improve employee, co-worker, team, and organizational morale, peace, productivity, and focus on mission
  • Pinpoint and resolve the underlying reasons that created the problem, decreasing the likelihood of its occurring again
  • Allow organizations to respond not only to single disputes, but to the stream of disputes that arise in all organizations, thereby promoting synergy, so that the whole organization benefits

Elements of an Effective Conflict Resolution System

There are several elements of creating and maintaining an effective conflict resolution systems within organizations. A well-implemented conflict system contains options for identifying and resolving issues early and when conflict persists. It also needs to have the support of leadership at all levels of the organization, with adequate resources-time, labor, money-for the system to function well. The system should incorporate incentives for regular, effective use and operation of the system/processes.

All interested parties are included and invited to participate fully in designing and implementing content, process, and relationships.

Making a decision to design and implement conflict resolution systems or processes for your organization or movement may seem like a luxury and a major undertaking. It is true that assessing the nature of ongoing conflicts within your organization will require a thoughtful analysis requiring time, energy, patience, and support. You can take it step-by-step, beginning with an assessment or any other intervention that may assist your organization, seeing what emerges and going from there. It is usually a long-term process, so taking one piece at a time can make sense given all the demands on your organization, while still benefiting your progress toward reduced or more productive conflict.

The potential benefit of your investment is huge, leading to fewer disputes, more harmonious working relationships, and a more productive organization better able to focus on and deliver your mission. Implementing an intentional and systemized approach to and process for conflicts within your organization allows you to effectively address conflicts as they arise. Your staff will become comfortable with and skilled in handling and resolving conflicts, and meaningful, effective conflict resolution will become a part of your organization’s culture.

Reflection Questions

Designing a conflict resolution system involves many steps and many people. It is tailored to the needs, culture, and mission of each organization or social movement.

The questions below, in summary form, are designed  to look closely at the conflicts that arise in an organization. The responses would be the basis of the design of a conflict resolution system for the organization.

  • What Is The Conflict About?
    • Who are the disputants and what are their issues?
  • How Do You Currently Handle Disputes?
    • What do people do if they have a complaint?
    • Why Are Disputes Handled This Way?
    • How satisfied are disputants with the procedures that are available?
  • How Much Does Conflict Cost?
    • What costs are associated with the continuation of the conflict, in terms of staff time, staff energy, staff stress, missed work, diversion of time and attention from projects, monetary costs?
  • What Are The Obstacles To Implementing An Effective Conflict Resolution Process/System?
    • In what ways is conflict resolution impacted by existing decision-making procedures?
    • What hinders the use of interest-based procedures?
  • Is There Adequate Support For The New System?
    • What motivations, if any, are there to implement, use, and evaluate the system?


Books and Articles

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown (2017)
The Art Of Waking People Up: Cultivating Awareness And Authenticity At Work by Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith (Jossey-Bass, 2003)
“Conflict resolution systems design, the united nations, and the new world order” by Kenneth Cloke
“What is Transformational Change?” by Robert Gass (PDF)
“Transforming Organizations – A Guide to Creating Effective Social Change Organizations” by Robert Gass (PDF)
“What is Transformation: And How It Advances Social Change” by Robert Gass (PDF)
Negotiating at an Uneven Table: Developing Moral Courage in Resolving Our Conflicts by Phyllis Beck Kritek (Jossey-Bass, 1994, 2002)
“Questions To Consider For Developing Conflict Resolution Systems” by Kenneth Cloke

Videos and Other Resources

An Emergent Strategy Primer – for Funders! by
Ken Cloke on BBC Timeline
See, also

Need help redesigning systems that are conflict competent?

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