Truly Alternative Dispute Resolution: The Infant Option
A good story leading into the weekend….
Some years ago, I was managing a very large (and very big-bucks) project involving multiple parties. The two biggest parties were having a serious dispute, and communications between them had all but broken down. (It didn’t help that they were thousands of miles apart in geography as well as culture.) So I invited them to our facilities for a week of talks — neutral ground for them, even though it was yet more thousands of miles distant from either of them.
The project manager (me) had just one small problem. I was starting paternity leave with our first child. My wife was returning to work after five months off, and now I was going to take a month away from work. Since she was still breastfeeding, though, we agreed to put our daughter part-time in infant care not far from where we both worked so that they’d have easy access to each other.
My plan that Monday morning was to drop off my daughter and then stop by the conference room I’d blocked out for the week. I wanted to welcome the disputing parties, make sure they were settled in and that coffee and baked goodies had arrived, and basically set the stage for the week. Then I’d disappear on paternity leave.
I hadn’t been planning to mediate, or even be present for most of the discussions. We were truly neutral in the dispute.
When I arrived at the conference room, the two teams were already yelling at each other engaged in high-energy discussion. I did my best to lower the temperature in the room for an hour, but frankly my success level was minimal.
I then took left to get my daughter, but not before one of the parties asked if I might check in on them in another hour or so. I said sure.
So an hour later I came back, my daughter strapped to me in a baby chest pack. Of course everyone ooh’d and aah’d at the infant, who was finally starting to look like something other than Winston Churchill. Then the discussion resumed, and the oddest thing happened.
With a baby in the room, no one could yell.
All the excess heat went out of the discussion. People started listening to each other — not a lot, but somewhat, certainly more than earlier that morning or for the month preceding these sessions.
Lunchtime. I took my daughter to my wife and then back to infant care. Since the day was already blown, I went back to the conference room — and they were yelling again.
After a while I excused myself, picked up my daughter, and returned to the conference room. Everyone stopped yelling and started talking… and communicating a bit.
The upshot of the story is that I restarted paternity leave the following week, I brought my daughter to the meetings two or three times each day, and by the end of the week the parties were hammering out a compromise.1
I learned or relearned a few lessons that week.
- In any project dispute, the first step is to lower the temperature. Yelling and browbeating may be fun for some people, but it’s rarely productive.
- Do whatever works. Don’t be afraid of alternative, even weird solutions to the problems you’re facing.
- Take advantage of serendipity. I didn’t plan on using my daughter as an ADR technique, but I saw it was working and went with it.
- Change the diaper as soon as you notice something’s happened.
My daughter is now a teenager, driving a car and driving us crazy. It probably has nothing to do with that week, but she plays the peacemaker role among her friends.
Have a great weekend.