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Conflict System Design

Designing better systems for the effective management of conflict

What is "Conflict System Design"?

Conflict System Design is a process for designing or redesigning the system by which conflict is managed in a particular environment. When designing or redesigning a conflict management system the task is to design and implement a "better" system for dealing with conflict in that environment. The designer works with the stakeholders to understand the present system and then applies key design principles to develop a more effective system. Diagnosis of the existing dispute resolution system is a key step in designing a new one. During the diagnosis phase of the project the designer asks three important questions: what?, how? and why?


What disputes are being experienced or are likely to arise? What are they about? What are the contributing factors to the conflict? Who are the disputants?.


How are the disputes being handled at the present time? What about the costs of the present system? What are the transaction costs? How satisfied are disputants with the outcomes arising from the present process? What effect does the present system have on relationships? How often do the same problems or types of problems arise?


Why are disputes handled in the way they are? The answers to this question frequently revolve around issues relating to traditional procedures, motivation, skill, resources and the organizational environment.

Approaches to Conflict Resolution

There are three major and inter-related approaches to resolving conflicts:

Interest-based approaches - processes which focus on reconciling the interests (wants, needs and concerns) of the parties. Examples include interest based negotiation, conciliation and mediation.

Rights-based approaches - processes which determine which party is "right" - based on statute, contract, precedent, objective facts. Examples include litigation, arbitration, advisory opinions.

Power-based approaches - processes which determine who has more power. While "power" is multi-dimensional, we can define it simply as "the ability to compel someone to do something they would not ordinarily do". There are two basic types of power procedures: power based negotiation (threatening) and power contests (e.g. strikes, votes).

Cost of Conflict Resolution

The principle goal of a conflict system design project is to reduce the "cost" of resolving disputes. While "cost" certainly includes the "dollars and cents", it is a broader concept which also includes the following criteria for measurement and comparison:

Transaction costs - resources (time and money) consumed / opportunities lost

Satisfaction with outcomes - to what degree are "interests" met? Is the resolution of the conflict perceived to be fair?

Effect on relationships - if there is an ongoing relationship? Is it strengthened or weakened by the dispute resolution system?

Recurrence - are the resolutions achieved durable (i.e. do they hold over time?). Are the number of similar disputes reduced?

Conflict Systems Design rests on the concept that, generally, interest based approaches to conflict resolution will be less costly and more satisfying than rights based approaches. Similarly, rights based approaches will be less costly and more satisfying than power based approaches.

Reduced Cost of Conflict Management

A good conflict management principal to follow is to use lower cost processes where the disputants have greater control (i.e. Negotiation, Mediation) before turning to more costly processes where the parties have less control and experience greater hostility (Arbitration, Litigation).


The conflict system designers embody the following principles in the design of a new system:

Focus on Interests - Interest based approaches to conflict management tend to produce outcomes at a lower cost. The system should generally start with interest based procedures (such as negotiation and mediation) and only move to rights based procedures (such as arbitration or litigation) and power based procedures when necessary.

Arrange Procedures in Low to High Cost Sequence - A "systems design" approach only moves up the Stairway of Dispute Resolution as far as required in any particular dispute. The search is constantly for the "right next step".

Provide Low-Cost Rights Backups - For example, generally arbitration will be a lower cost backup process than litigation.

Provide "loop backs" - The system should provide for ongoing periodic review to determine if there are appropriate opportunities to utilize lower cost processes such as negotiation and mediation.

Provide Motivation, Skills and Resources - Disputants should have motivation to use the newly designed system as well as the skills and resources necessary to be effective. For example, if the new system places heavy emphasis on negotiation, consideration should be given to providing the potential disputants with negotiation training.

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