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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? - 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? - 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? - 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

It is useful to recognize that there are three inter-dependent fundamental factors that affect the resolution of disputes:

        Interests - are defined by a party in an interaction and are the things that that party is interested in (money, recognition, physical goods, or whatever).  Dispute resolution methods that focus on reconciling interests include win-win styles of negotiation and facilitative mediation.

        Power - is given by a combination of external circumstances and self-confidence.  There are two basic types of power procedures: power-based negotiations (threatening) and power contests (strikes, votes, and so forth).

        Rights - are given by an external framework, for example national laws or contracts between parties.  Dispute resolution methods based on rights include litigation, arbitration, advisory opinions, and evaluative mediation.

Cost of Conflict Resolution

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

Transaction costs - resources (time and money) consumed and 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 (that is, do they hold over time)?  Is the number of similar disputes reduced?

Conflict System Design rests on two main concepts: (1) quality should be engineered-in at the beginning, not inspected-out at the end; and (2) generally, interest-based approaches to conflict resolution will be less costly and more satisfying than rights-based or power-based approaches.

Features and Benefits of Good Conflict Management Systems

The features portion of this clause is based on Dispute Resolution: Negotiation, Mediation, and Other Processes by Stephen B. Goldberg, Frank E.A. Sander, and Nancy H. Rogers (Little Brown, 1992).




Consultation and negotiation are stressed.

Parties get the information they need to construct win-win solutions.

There is a focus on interests.

The stress is on win-win solutions.

Provision is made for evaluating rights, with a loop-back to negotiation.

Allows the balance of power between parties to be mutually understood and taken into account during negotiations.

A fast and inexpensive rights-based approach exists.

Lowers the cost and delay of the dispute resolution process.

Parties move from low-cost dispute resolution processed to higher-cost alternatives if the dispute cannot be resolved with low-cost methods.

Minimizes the cost of the dispute resolution process.

Provides the motivation, skills, and resources required.

Allows the desired conflict management process to happen in practice.



Once the disputants' cultures and the nature of the actual or potential conflicts has been understood, a design can be developed in accordance with the principles outlined above.  Then a specific implementation plan can be developed in order to provide the necessary motivation, skills, and resources.  For example, potential disputants or neutral third parties could be provided with training in specific techniques.