Business Partners begin their relationship with win-win goals and objectives in mind, generally taking advantage of their respective strengths, minimizing their respective weaknesses, with the objective of accomplishing together what cannot be achieved separately.
Unwittingly and unintentionally, one party (“the party of the first part”) takes an action that the other party (“the party of the second part”) interprets as outside the spirit, if not the letter, of their understanding. The “offended” party perceives that the action gives the “offending” party unfair advantage in the partnership (at best) or harms the “offended” party (at worst).
The spirit of the partnership turns to one of contentious adversaries,` typically as a function of the mental model(s) each party holds. Rather than communicate and engage in dialogue, the offended party assumes (a) it knows everything there is to know about the action (including the foreknowledge that it was willful and hostile), (b) there is no point in discussing it, and (c) their only option is to right the wrong through retaliatory action.
In reality, the first party may not be aware of its action’s “harmful” of “hurtful” nature. When the second party retaliates, the first party is as surprised and wounded as the second party, and proceeds to make the same assumptions that the second party did. The first party’s recourse?
Once the adversarial (partnership turned sour) relationship takes hold, however change is still available to the parties should they suspend their mental models and engage in dialogue. The root of misunderstandings, unrealistic expectations, performance problems or mistakes can be revealed, giving the parties a fresh start on their partnership.
This archetype states that when teams or parties in a working relationship misinterpret the actions of each other because of misunderstandings, unrealistic expectations or performance problems, suspicion and mistrust erode the relationship. If mental models fueling the deteriorating relationship are not challenged, all parties may lose the benefits of their synergy.
Behavior Over Time
The trend of each of the adversaries follows a similar direction and rate of change, with one of the adversaries trailing the other (the delay as information travels through the systems and is interpreted). The pattern will show periodic leveling periods, though overall the trend will be in a direction that adversely impacts both parties.
Application – Collaboration
Many cooperative efforts begin on a good note only to deteriorate over time, often as the need for collaboration deepens. This archetype helps the parties to a collaborative effort gain insight into how the actions of one party are filtered through mental models to produce unintended interpretations.
In the early 1990’s the Physician Practice Management Corporation industry emerged. PPMCs purchased the hard assets of a practice in return for a percent of revenue for operational services rendered. Initially the relationships fared well. Eventually however, when performance and growth lagged, physicians became uneasy with the relationships and began to interpret every move by the PPMC as potentially (or actually) injurious to theirs interests.
The result was the downward spiral of both parties’ interests.
• Revisit the original opportunity that brought the parties together into a collaborative relationship.
• Use the archetype to identify the origins of adversarial attitudes. Explore the thinking behind impasses, and how each contributed to the matter at hand.
• Renew the Shared Vision of the collaborative effort and commit to Team Learning.
Seven Action Steps
• Reconstruct the conditions that were the catalyst for collaboration.
• Review the original understandings and expected mutual benefits.
• Identify conflicting incentives that may be driving adversarial behavior.
• Map the unintended side effects of each party’s actions.
• Develop overarching goals that align the efforts of the parties.
• Establish metrics to monitor collaborative behavior.
• Establish routine communication.
What Does This Really Mean?
The lesson of Accidental Adversaries lies in the power of mental models to supply all too ready explanations of situations. Unless judgement is suspended these mental models can drive one, both or all parties to conclusions that bear remote resemblance to the underlying reason the “breach” in the relationship occurred in the first place, if indeed any breach actually took place.
There is also a lesson on Shared Vision in this archetype. The degree to which the parties hold a vision in common and have articulated their deep needs and expectations is a significant contributor to tempering reactions of the parties when breaches are perceived.
Breaches in the agreement(s) may happen; the probability of deteriorating into Accidental Adversaries is decidedly lower when the parties believe there are overarching values and objectives that unite them in Shared Vision.
Shared Vision will contribute insight to the extent that partners actually engage in helping fix problems (or problem symptoms) in their partner’s organization because of their understanding of the long-term impact their efforts will have on their own firm’s success. This suggests that Shared Vision is connected to a sense of mission higher than money, that a sense of purpose to customers and an underlying, shared sense of organizational values and culture must be the bedrock of the partnership in the first place.
The archetype also draws attention to Team Learning. If the partners in the venture adopt a principle of continuous joint improvement and learning, the probability that breaches to the partnership will happen in the first place is diminished, as well as a higher probability that if and when misunderstandings, unrealistic expectations or performance problems do occur, the parties will have mechanisms in place to meet each other half way and work them out.