Problem solving for conflict management

Bechtel Group, Inc.


Each conflict or problem presents us with an opportunity to solve it constructively and creatively. Conditions change with time and require adaptation and creativity. Two extreme approaches restrain a creative and constructive change:

• Rigid resistance to change

• Rapid and disruptive change

Both approaches may prevent individuals from seeing all the essential details of the conflict or problem situation, and how they interface and form a whole. Consequently, conflicts or problems may not be solved constructively to the benefit of all involved, and a win-lose atmosphere may prevail. True problem solving as described in this paper has the potential to solve conflicts and problems constructively and creatively.

Problem solving is often influenced by economic pressures, such as the quarterly profit of an organization. This type of pressure may require a decision from an individual manager, although the time for gathering the necessary information may be insufficient and not all pertinent facts are available. In the Japanese industry, for example, decisions are often made by an entire group and may take several years. When long range business plans are developed, this group process may be most appropriate.

To keep a project on schedule and within budget, the manager of a project may have to make a timely and correct decision that not only requires adequate facts but also satisfies the different project groups.

Dynamic problem solving, as treated in this article, provides the project manager with an approach for obtaining adequate information about facts and group needs for a better decision within a reasonable time.

The Project Manager's Dynamic Group Environment

For accomplishing the project goals the project manager controls project progress by:

• Keeping expenses within budget

• Staying on schedule

• Maintaining quality

According to Stuckenbruck [12] these control efforts require that the project manager take responsibility for:

• Planning and scheduling of project technical accomplishments and expenditures

• Evaluating and monitoring of technical accomplishments

• Evaluating and monitoring commitments and expenditures (fiscal management and cost control)

• Customer liaison and customer relations

• Communicating project status to top management

While carrying out these responsibilities, the project manager contacts and interacts with a variety of individuals, teams, and organizations that belong to the following six groups:

• Client

• Corporate management

• Project team

• Functional organizations

• Regulatory agencies

• Public groups — Environmental groups, etc.

These six groups constitute not a static but a dynamic group environment in which the project manager must work and accomplish project goals. The project manager does not have the freedom and the sheltered isolation for his work that is described for groups of creative individuals by Gordon [3], Some companies shelter the creative individual from interference, disruption, rigid procedures, routine work, and give them the freedom to select their goals and how to achieve them, if necessary, by unconventional means.

The project manager is restrained by the project's set goals and by the dynamic groups in his working environment. These groups make demands, and often interpret the project tasks or the ways to achieve them in their own way, and sometimes lose sight of the project goals. The project manager must integrate all group contributions, must communicate to keep these groups on track, and must solve problems. Though he does not have the ideal, sheltered environment of a few groups of creative individuals, he can apply the same methods for solving problems to his advantage. The question has often been raised whether or not these creative methods are common to all individuals and are frequently used. Experimental psychologists [16] and many management consultants have confirmed that creative problem solving methods occur in the working of the mind in all healthy individuals. These methods are to be described in a later section of this article.

The organizational structure of the company for which the project manager works is another part of the project manager's working environment. If the company has a matrix organization, the project and the functional organizations are usually separate entities. In this case the six groups can be related as in Figure 1. The project manager takes the central position in this hexagon. This suggests that each group can interact with the project manager, and to a certain degree with each other.

If the project is autonomous, as it occurs in some companies, the functional support is part of the project organization. The six sided polygon of Figure 1 reduces to a four sided one, a square, which is shown in Figure 2. The regulatory agencies and the environmental groups have been combined as public groups in Figure 2.

Figure 1
Dynamic Group Environment for a Matrix Organization

Dynamic Group Environment for an Autonomous Project

Figure 2
Dynamic Group Environment for an Autonomous Project

Dynamic Group Environment for a Matrix Organization

Conflicts can occur between the groups in the project manager's environment. He must overcome these to fulfill the project goals. The role of the project manager is that of integrator, motivator and problem solver.

The examples of conflict belong to these group interfaces:

• Project-Corporate Management

• Project-Client

• Project-Functional Organization

Dynamic Problem Solving may be discussed as an essential managerial tool. Dynamic Problem Solving is a system that comprises:

• Creative problem solving steps

• Energy levels of the problem solving steps

• Operational modes of perception and judgement

• Effective group techniques for accelerating consensus

Organizational development, which is practiced in some companies, is used to illustrate a managerial problem solving effort.

Examples of Conflict

Roadblocks and conflicts can occur in many different areas. The examples which are given in this section describe conflicts between the six groups that constitute the dynamic work environment of the project manager that were described in the previous section. The first three examples were contributed by H. Causing [1].

Project-Corporate Interface

The project manager considers granting promotions and pay raises to certain individuals of the project team who are critical to maintaining good overall morale and the continued success of the project. The division manager at the home office objects to the promotions and pay raises, because they would place the project team members into more advanced grades than held by their peers at the home office.

Project-Division Interfaces

A division manager assigns a principal engineer and newly appointed department head from a home office division as a home office backup engineer (HOBE). The assignment directive defines the HOBE's function as routine support of two overseas project managers. In spite of this directive the HOBE assumes project supervision and surveillance, and thereby infringes on contract management and profitability, which are regional office functions. Support of the project is neglected, and is left to other individuals. Within a few weeks the HOBE has become demoralized and has antagonized the project manager, whom he is to support. The HOBE's supervisor, the division manager, tacitly gives his blessings to the HOBE's interference by failing to act, though the interference had been brought to his attention. The HOBE interprets this inaction as approval of his activities.

A two-front conflict is created within the matrix organization between:

• Project manager and HOBE

• Regional and division management

Joint Venture

A joint venture for the execution of a major multi-disciplinary project is composed of a consulting engineering firm and two contractor firms. One of the contractor firms is the sponsor. The project director, who is an employee of the sponsor, finds lively conflict and increasing tension between construction and design organizations, both in the field and in the home office. The organizations disagree which group should handle the quality control. A good amount of accusative and defensive “memo-to-the-file” writing occurs. If litigation should ensue, the memos could become shattering evidence against the joint venture.

Conflict of varying degrees has traditionally existed between engineering-design supervision and construction contractor organizations. The engineers used to be the owner's representatives and were protecting the owner's interests. Therefore, the contractor needed to be watched so that he did not jeopardize quality for greater profit. The contractor, on the other hand, considered all design engineers to be dreamers who were removed from reality and were incapable of practical and economical design. Supervising engineers and inspectors were unreasonable beings, who made contractors lose money.

The advent of turn-key projects with single responsibility contracts places both sides on the same team, and gives both sides common responsibility for the project execution. However, the traditional conflict does not disappear. It decreases on turn-key projects that are executed by a single corporation, whose central management can control and restrain it. This example shows that the traditional conflict may exist in its full intensity, if the project is performed by a joint venture of independent engineering and contractor organizations.

Programmer - Engineer Interface

Kingdon [6] examines the cooperation of a team of engineers and programmers who are developing technical computer programs. In order to overcome the passive expressions of conflict that consisted in mutual accusations, Kingdon tried problem solving and the confrontation of operational conflicts by several meetings. Kingdon wrote, “This meeting revealed that there were problems in understanding within each group of supervisors as well as between the groups. Differences of perception existed between engineers and engineers, and between programmers and programmers.” Kingdon also stated that the expected performances of each group must be determined by “negotiated interaction between the two groups.” Engineers complained that programmers did not want to accept responsibilities for various aspects of the program, while programmers accused engineers of the same lack of acceptance of responsibility.

This example shows particularly well why the project manager is needed for problem solving and for integrating the activities of the two teams. The nominal group technique, which is explained later, could have accelerated overcoming the programmer-engineer conflict.

Manager – Individual Interface

The example that describes the project manager's efforts to promote the project team members illustrates the manager-individual interface and how the manager tries to motivate his employees to accomplish the project. The project manager motivates individuals within the project team and, to a certain degree, in the functional organization.

The project manager must convince the employee that he can successfully complete the task, and that his effort will contribute greatly to achieve one of his major personal goals. The Vroom model of motivation [15] fits well in a project situation. It relates the individual's expectancy, the activity, the importance of the goal, and how much doing the activity will help to reach the goal. Adapting this approach to the project situation requires that the employee's capabilities fit with the requirements of the project task so that the employee's goal and the project's goal can be fulfilled. Figure 3 illustrates how project and employee capabilities can be related.

Roadblocks and conflicts can develop if the capabilities of the employee are not properly matched to the project task, or if the employee decides that doing the task (activity) will not achieve his personal goal.

Conflict Responses

When roadblocks or conflicts threaten the accomplishment of individual or project goals, these five responses have been described by Thamhain [14]:

• Withdrawal - effective 0%

• Smoothing - effective 0%

• Compromising - effective 11%

• Forcing - effective 25%

• Problem solving - effective 59%

Figure 3
Goal Realization for an Employee and a Project

Goal Realization for an Employee and a Project

Tennow reported the effectiveness figures for the five responses [13]. A comparison of the effectiveness figures shows that problem solving is most effective.

Since the project manager is more of an integrator, and since the project manager often deals with individuals or groups that do not directly report to him, problem solving will usually be the most effective approach for the project manager. Forcing can only become effective if an expert is certain of the correct solution. Even then, forcing often leaves hurt feelings in affected individuals.

The project manager's efforts to integrate the contributions of various groups and to communicate across the interfaces of his dynamic group environment require special attributes. Stuckenbruck described a series of attributes [12], some of which are:

• Total problem oriented

• Effective problem solver

• Skilled analyst

• Creative

• Multi-discipline oriented

• Flexible

All of these attributes describe the project manager as a skillful problem-solver who practices the methods of Dynamic Problem Solving, which is described in a later section, and who easily discovers deviations from performance criteria.

Forces that restrain the project manager's efforts to solve problems are:

• Individuals or groups do not make an effort to see “what is there”

• A preconceived idea dominates

• Bias against a particular technical approach

• Prejudice against an individual or group

• Status consciousness combined with “not my idea”

• Dependence on the judgment of others and judging prematurely

• Rigid adherence to an outdated procedure

• Details are more important than the overall goal

The project manager must recognize these restraining forces and must overcome them by problem solving.

The writer has experienced that the initial step to “see what is there” in a conflict situation is most restrained by emotional ego related responses. Once individuals realize that they are only looking at the facts and are not judged, they are able to detach from their ego fears and emotional responses, and progress is made toward problem definition and solution.

With regard to status, Gordon emphasizes in his book on the development of creative capacity [3] that the people chosen for this activity “must be beyond status as defined by the traditional symbolism because their group will develop another kind of status based on contributions and independence.”

Management that cannot integrate creative individuals into their task efforts can lose many good contributions and can cause creative individuals considerable frustration.

Dynamic Problem Solving

This section describes the aspects of Dynamic Problem Solving that can be constructively used for overcoming conflict and for accomplishing tasks.

Dynamic Problem Solving has been found to occur in the mind of the healthy individual, when he solves problems. It is man's natural way for accomplishing tasks and for overcoming conflicts. The details of Dynamic Problem Solving have been observed and have been confirmed by experimental psychology [16]. They have been observed in the working methods of outstanding individuals who were creative in science, technology, art, and in other areas of human endeavor. They have also been observed in more routine work that searches for solutions that are not always great contributions to the advancement of human knowledge.

Normally, when we are involved in a problem solving effort, our attention is focused on defining and solving the problem, and is focused less or not at all on the process of how we solve the problem. Therefore, we are usually not aware how we proceed in our work. When reviewing our problem solving activities, the process can often be recalled into our conscious mind. The following description of findings on problem solving will improve awareness of the process and will also improve individual and group problem solving skills.

Dynamic Problem Solving is a system that comprises:

• Creative problem solving steps

• Energy levels of the problem solving steps

• Operational modes for perception and judgement

• Effective group techniques for accelerating consensus

Creative Problem Solving Steps

The four creative problem solving steps [10] are:

• Conscious effort for problem definition and solution finding

• Detachment for enabling the unconscious effort

• Illumination—The solution emerges in the consciousness

• Completion—The solution is realized by a conscious effort

Energy Levels

The human energy levels that are connected with the four creative problem solving steps are:

• Expenditure of energy—frustration

• Relaxation—consciously forget problem

• Gain of energy—elation

• Growth—satisfaction, harmony, accomplishment

Figure 4
Emotional Components of Creativity

Emotional Components of Creativity

The major driving force in the human experiencing organism is the desire or love for fulfillment, unfoldment, growth and learning. It is the creative will that carries the individual to fulfillment and accomplishment by overcoming roadblocks and conflict. Figure 4 shows how the dynamic problem solving process iterates on the four steps, if the emerging solution does not prove adequate in the completion step.

A fruitful interaction occurs between conscious effort and illumination. The conscious effort induces the activity of the unconscious or subconscious in the human mind.

Jaynes, in his book on consciousness [5], also quotes an example that describes how unconsciousness participates in the problem solving effort. The writer's paper on the fruitful moment [9] also emphasizes the role of the unconscious.

The detachment step eliminates conscious interference in the unconscious problem solving activity. When the unconscious part of the mind is ready, it communicates an idea or solution to the conscious part of the mind. The emergence of the idea is the illumination step. Everyone has experienced the quiet working of the unconscious in the problem solving process.

Sometimes, a word is on the tip of the tongue, but cannot be pronounced. We forget about the word for awhile and, suddenly, we can say the word consciously. The same process occurs when we forget where we placed an object and cannot recall its place, though we may try hard. After forgetting our efforts for a while, we suddenly recall where the object is. New solutions to problems can similarly be found, as was reported about Archimedes, who suddenly discovered his problem solution, specific gravity in the bathtub. The emotions that characterize the energy levels of the four creative problem solving steps appear to be strong field forces in the dynamic problem solving process.

Operational Modes

The operational modes for perception and judgement are used to exercise the four problem solving steps. Perception and judgement are essential for problem analysis and for decision making. The psychologist, Jung, defined four psychological functions for perception and judgement. These psychological functions were related to the creative problem solving steps in my papers [9] and [10], and were called operational modes, because they transform sense perceptions into mental images or mental images into expressions, and aid decision making. Recently, Ornstein [8] confirmed two of the operational modes by brain wave measurements. He found these two operational modes of perception:

• Sensation informs about individual parts — it sequentially perceives discrete elements

• Intuition informs about the whole system — it simultaneously perceives individual parts as a whole

Sensation and intuition combine to complete the mental image of an object. The combining of the two modes can symbolically be represented by the Chinese I Ching symbol of two intertwining halves that form a circle. Ornstein calls sensation reason. Intuition is basic for the systems approach, which is important for project management. Stuckenbruck [11] stated that the effective project manager must be able to see the overall view of a project, the “big picture”. Ornstein finds that our educational system neglects the teaching of intuition [8].

The two operational modes of sensation and intuition perceive the object without judging. In sensation, details are qualitatively seen as they are without interpretation or judgement. In intuition, relationships between details are qualitatively seen as they simultaneously form a whole.

Seminars that were held with project managers by the author [10] confirmed that project managers use intuition 35% of the time and the mode thinking, which is explained later, 45% of the time in solving problems. Since the project manager has to “see the whole picture” it is understandable that intuition is used to such a high degree.

For functioning in real life, for judging, two more operational modes are needed. Judging means that perceived facts are compared with criteria and that a decision is made about the fit of the facts and the criteria. This decision is made in the sense of true or false and like or dislike. The two judgemental modes are:

• Thinking – The perceived details or the whole are compared with performance criteria, rules, and laws. A decision is made whether the facts fit the criteria and are true.

• Feeling – Perceived facts, or the whole, are compared to criteria of harmony, perfection, and preferences. A decision as to like or dislike of the comparison is made.

Integration Of Problem Solving Steps And Operational Modes

Figure 5 combines the four creative problem solving steps and the four operational modes, and integrates them into a dynamic system for problem solving. The experienced problem can be of a technical, social or conflict nature. Once a technical problem has been solved, the problem solving system has to be applied to a force field analysis for implementing the technical solution.

Figure 5
Dynamic Problem Solving, Creative Problem Solving Steps And Operational Modes

Dynamic Problem Solving, Creative Problem Solving Steps And Operational Modes

The driving forces, which realize the solutions, and the restraining forces, which block progress, must be recognized and analyzed. The restraining forces must be controlled or neutralized and, if possible, they must be constructively combined with the driving forces. Restraining and driving forces are dynamic human factors within individuals and teams, and between groups or organizations that can cause the conflicts that must be overcome for progress and growth.

Figure 6 for practical dynamic problem solving expresses the creative problem solving steps and the operational modes in a more practical form that can be used as a guide for problem solving activities.


Nominal Group Technique

The details of the Nominal Group Technique (NGT) for group discussions, as treated in my earlier papers [10] [2], reveal that the dynamic problem solving approach also applies to this technique. The NGT discussion steps relate to problem solving in this way:

• Quiet independent generation of ideas relates to the conscious effort for problem analysis and definition, and to illumination for receiving solution ideas. The perceptive modes, sensation and intuition, and probably the judgemental mode of thinking are used.

• “Round Robin” feedback from group members continues the conscious effort and uses the sensation mode to record ideas.

• Discussion of recorded ideas for clarification and evaluation still applies the conscious effort for better problem definition. The thinking mode dominates, because evaluating requires comparing facts with criteria.

• Individual voting on the priority of ideas proceeds to the essential consensus. Step four, completion, is exercised. The judgemental modes of thinking and feeling are applied.

As reported in [10], the NGT experiences of project managers confirmed the creative problem solving steps, the operational modes, elimination of dominance, and achievement of consensus. The NGT experiences also yielded information on group and individual problem solving. This information agreed to a certain degree with findings that were updated by Hall [4], According to Hall's findings, groups made better decisions than individuals, when the groups used group discussion techniques that lead to real consensus. He also reported that 25% of the individuals who participated in solving a specific problem in this group afterwards reached better answers for this problem than the group did. A fruitful exchange of ideas occurs in the NGT discussions. The NGT approach is designed to eliminate dominance by aggressive individuals.

Figure 6
Practical Problem Solving Steps

Practical Problem Solving Steps

Dynamic Problem Solving And Organizational Development

When the performance of a group or organization can be improved, or when obstacles to performance need to be removed, some companies have successfully used Organizational Development (OD). This section examines how Dynamic Problem Solving compares with the OD effort. Moravec described the approach of OD at Bechtel [7], The OD specialist focuses on the tasks to be accomplished and on the obstacles to be overcome. No effort is made to evaluate managers, to collect information for evaluation, to change managerial style, or to interfere in a way that would increase tension.

In the first phase, which Moravec called Data Gathering, the OD specialist identifies what the members of the team understand to be their major problems, tasks, goals and objectives. Information is gathered about the unit's opportunities and problems, including barriers to performance. If a communications problem exists, the OD specialist asks, “What specifically do these people need to do to resolve their problems and accomplish their tasks? What are the specific work issues?”

This OD approach clearly shows that it is an effort to define the problem, to see “what is there”. Sensation and intuition are applied to clarify the details and to relate them. The question, “What is a solution?” is also asked. Performance criteria are used to further define the problem. The thinking mode is used.

The second phase of the OD effort is called Feedback Action-Planning Meeting. In this phase the OD specialist feeds back to the group the gathered information in an organized form. He does not analyze the information or attribute it to individuals. After review, the group and its manager commit themselves to assignments, which are compatible with their responsibilities, and that will address the defined issues.

The problem solving process has entered the stage of solution finding in the second phase.

The third phase of the OD effort is named by Moravec, Implementation and Follow-up. “Each participant begins work on his or her action items immediately.” At a series of follow-up sessions, progress is reviewed and any new problems are assessed. This phase focuses on the results that have been achieved. It resembles the fourth creative problem solving step, “Conscious Completion.” Besides using the modes of sensation and intuition, thinking is applied to compare results with the performance criteria.

The three OD phases compare with the problem solving steps are shown in Figure 7.

Moravec stated that the application of this OD procedure leads to beneficial changes — productivity and performance improve. He also found the OD approach highly cost effective. The OD technique is flexible and has been used successfully in industries ranging from manufacturing and construction to data processing and research and development. Multinational organizations have used it in foreign countries.


The system of Dynamic Problem Solving which is presented in here and in an earlier paper [10] should improve awareness of restraints, conflict causes, and personal differences in problem solving. It should benefit individual and group problem solving, help overcome conflicts, and should become fruitful for the individual, company and society. Dynamic Problem Solving should reduce unnecessary frustration. Even if a conflict is overcome and the work is accomplished by Dynamic Problem Solving, ill feelings between involved individuals may remain, but hopefully at a reduced level. Though Dynamic Problem Solving is man's natural way for solving problems, it is not an absolutely exact recipe because the human mind and life continuously change.

The individual or group must be ready and willing to solve problems dynamically and must not be frozen in a rigid behavior that leaves no space for new ideas and approaches. By actively moving and applying the mind, and by overcoming conflict, individuals and teams can arrive at clarity and knowledge. Finally, dynamic problem solving is woven into that stream of life in which a seed thought assembles details into a whole. The whole unfolds to a fully expressed and exercised system. After some time, this particular system dissolves to enable the realization of a new system at a higher or different level.

Figure 7
Dynamic Problem Solving and Organizational Development

Dynamic Problem Solving and Organizational Development


1. Causing, H.R., Regional Manager South East Asia, International Engineering Company, Inc. San Francisco.

2. Delberg A. and Van de Ven, A. Group Techniques for Program Planning, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1975.

3. Gordon, W.J.J., Synectics-The Development of Creative Capacity, London: Collier Mac Millan Publishers, 1976, pp. 72, 84-85.

4. Hall, J., Group Decisions, The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 1978.

5. Jaynes, J. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Boston: Hougton Mifflin Company, 1976, p. 34-36.

6. Kingdon, D.R., Matrix Organization, Travistock, London, 1973, pp. 109-127.

7. Moravec, M. Is HRD Enough, Personnel, AMACOM, A Division of American Management Association, New York: 1979.

8. Ornstein, R., The Split and the Whole Brain, Human Nature, Greenwich, CT, 1978.

9. Richter, H.P., Order, Dynamic Factors and Importance of the Fruitful Moment for Research and Education, The Pennsylvania State University, State College PA, 1960.

10. Richter, H.P., Overcoming Conflict in Project Management, 1977 Proceedings, Project Management Institute, Drexel Hill, PA.

11. Stuckenbruck, L.C., Project Manager – the Systems Integrator, Project Management Quarterly, IX, 1978.

12. Stuckenbruck, L.C., The Ten Attributes of the Proficient Project Manager, 1976 Proceedings, Project Management Institute, Drexel Hill, PA, p. 41.

13. Tennow, D., Fluor Mining & Metals, San Mateo, 1978, Effectiveness figures were presented by D. Tennow. Findings are based on work by Nichols and Wilemon.

14. Thamhain, H.J., Conflict Management in Project-Oriented Work Environments, 1974 Proceedings, Project Management Institute, Drexel Hill, PA.

15. Vroom, V.H., Work and Motivation, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1964, p. 14-19.

16. Woodworth, Robert S., Experimental Psychology, New York: Holt, 1938.

Dr. Horst P. Richter is associated with Bechtel Corporation in computer program development. He also serves as chairman of the ASME Committee on Computer Systems.


If your address is in error, incomplete, etc., please notify:

Project Management Institute

P.O. Box 43

Drexel Hill, PA 19026

1This article was previously published in the 1979 Proceedings of the Project Management Institute, 11th Annual Seminar/Symposium, Atlanta, Georgia.

2The author would like to express his gratitude to H. Causing for contributing several examples of conflict from the project environment.



Related Content

  • Project Management Journal

    How Power Influences Behavior in Projects member content locked

    By Wynn, Conor | Smith, Liam | Killen, Catherine Taking a case-study approach, we traced the thoughts of project managers subject to power, particularly those who resisted.

  • Project Management Journal

    The Effect of Political Skill on Relationship Quality in Construction Projects member content locked

    By Wang, Dedong | Liu, Yang This study aims to investigate the relationship among political skill, cooperative conflict management styles, and relationship quality.

  • Project Management Journal

    Effects of Project Leader Workplace Anxiety on Project Team Member Organizational Citizenship Behavior member content locked

    By Wang, Linlin | Lin, Han | Jiang, Wan This study investigates how and when project leader workplace anxiety influences project team member organizational citizenship behavior.

  • PM Network

    Direto e no ponto member content open

    PM Network questiona a comunidade de gerenciamento de projetos sobre a correção de maus hábitos na equipe.

  • PM Network

    Straight and Narrow member content open

    PM Network queries the project management community on correcting bad habits on the team.