WIN-WIN vs. LOSE-LOSE: Two Approaches to Conflict Resolution

28 July 2009 · 25 comments

On 19 April 2007, I wrote a short post about compact fluorescent light bulbs for Get Rich Slowly. It was a throwaway post, really — just a quick update. To illustrate it, I googled for a photo of a CFL in action. Most of them sucked, but I found one that didn’t:

I downloaded the photo, added it to my article, and went about my business. A few hours later, I received this e-mail in my inbox (I’ve added HTML to make things more readable):

My name is David Hobby, and I run Strobist.com. I see that you and I have similar Technorati rankings, so I would assume you know that it is not nice to just grab someone’s photo without permission, wherever it came from. *Especially* if you do not even credit and link to them.

I spent a lot of time and thought making that photo. And to my knowledge there is not another one like it in the world. Normally, photographer tend to pretty much go apeshit and point both barrels at an infringer in a situation like this. But I do understand that you probably have a lot of things in the air at one time and I want to give you the benefit of the doubt when going forward.

Rather than go into the Default Legal Mode like I do when a big company does this kind of thing (I had a very nice, 6-week European vacation on a publisher who did this once) I would rather treat this as a minor oops and give you a range of choices for you to decide how you want to go forward.

For a few moments, I felt like the world was crashing around me. I knew I had done something wrong. I’d been “borrowing” photos via Google for years, even though I knew it wasn’t strictly kosher. I’d always thought of it as a venial sin, though, one that would never cause me woe.

In his e-mail, Hobby outlined four possible resolutions to the problem. In each option, he won something. But what I got out of each choice was vastly different. In one case, I lost a lot. At the other extreme, I actually gained something. In other words, he was offering me a variety of scenarios, some of which were WIN-LOSE, and at least one of which was WIN-WIN. I chose the WIN-WIN.

WIN-WIN

To compensate Hobby, I wrote an article about the blurring line between amateur and professional photographers, in which I included plenty of links to his site. I got to use Hobby’s photo, and he received some “linkjuice” and exposure for Strobist.

But then a curious thing happened. Hobby and I became friends. We began to pick each other’s brains. We asked each other blogging questions. We spoke by phone, and he explained that Strobist was making enough money to support him. Get Rich Slowly wasn’t quite to that point yet for me, so I found this fascinating.

Then, for one of the “assignments” on his site, Hobby created a photo with Get Rich Slowly in mind:


Nest Egg by David Hobby

Earlier this year, Hobby decided to sell his home in Baltimore. As part of his marketing effort, he created a blog. I thought this was a cool idea, but it also gave me a chance to help a friend. I wrote about the idea at Get Rich Slowly.

Basically, what started as a confrontation because I had done something very stupid turned into a mutually beneficial relationship. Why? Because Hobby encouraged me to pursue the course of WIN-WIN.

The Big Book of Everything

Not every conflict is resolved so amicably. Sometimes one (or both) of the parties is unable to take the long view, or perhaps feels so aggrieved that they’re not willing to pursue a WIN-WIN option. Here I have another example from the world of Get Rich Slowly.

Authors and publishers send me books all of the time. I get several per month (and sometimes several per week). I can’t hope to review them all, but I do my best. Last year, Mark Gavagan sent me a copy of his It’s All Right Here life and affairs organizer, a three-ring binder designed to help people organize their important information.

I was intrigued by It’s All Right Here, but I felt like it had some weaknesses (it was big and unwieldy, almost too comprehensive). Also, at $50, it seemed expensive. Instead of doing a full review, I mentioned it at GRS whenever it seemed appropriate.

I mentioned It’s All Right Here in February, for example, when answering a reader question about how to organize account information. That same question prompted a GRS reader named Erik Dewey to organize his own information. He created a personal spreadsheet to act as his own life affairs organizer. In May, Dewey sent me e-mail:

I read your post about preparing your information for disaster. I did the same thing a while back and made what I called the Big Book of Everything. I PDF’d it so I could print out new pages when I needed to. Anyway, I thought you might like to take a look at it. Enjoy, let me know if you see anything I missed.

I thought Dewey’s project was great, so I wrote back and asked permission to share it with the Get Rich Slowly community. He gave his okay. Last week, after two months of sitting on the idea, I finally posted about Dewey’s free life-affairs organizer.

People loved it. It was obviously unpolished, but it gave folks a framework with which to assemble their information. Lifehacker picked up the story, and Dewey’s project made the rounds of the web. Everyone was happy.

Well — not everyone.

LOSE-LOSE

Mark Gavagan, the creator of the It’s All Right Here life and affairs organizer was decidedly unhappy. He wrote to me expressing his concerns that Dewey had “stolen” from him when creating the free Big Book of Everything

This was a sticky situation. I had communicated with both Gavagan and Dewey, and they both seemed like nice guys. Having read both books, I didn’t think Dewey had plagiarized from Gavagan. His e-book had similarities to Gavagan’s book, but that was only natural. All life affairs organizers have similarities, just as all books about debt reduction have similarities.

I didn’t want to be caught in the middle of this dispute, so I suggested that Gavagan contact Dewey in order to work things out. Both sides agree that conversation was friendly enough, but the end result was the opposite of the WIN-WIN scenario Hobby and I arrived at a couple of years ago. This time the result was LOSE-LOSE.

Dewey took down the PDF and Excel versions of his Big Book of Everything and posted the following statement:

I received a call from Mark Gavagan who wrote the It’s All In Here information organizer. He had concerns about where I got the information for what I put in the Big Book of Everything.

Let me state that I do not own, nor have I read, or even handled his book. I could not find anything that met all of my needs in an information organizer, so I decided to make my own. I gathered the list of what forms to include from a variety of sources, including my father’s will.

Still, I am sympathetic to his concerns. He is a small publisher and something like the Big Book could have a noticable impact on him. Call it the law of unintended consequences.

My goal in posting the Big Book was just to share something I had created, similar to some of the gaming spreadsheets and quick reference cards I’ve posted on this site. I had no intention of harming someone else in the process, but that is what happened.

So, I’ve decided to take down the Big Book and I apologize if you came here specifically to find it.

Again, let me re-iterate: I think that Gavagan and Dewey are both nice guys. I don’t think either one is trying to be a jerk. But in a LOSE-LOSE scenario, that doesn’t always matter.

Post-mortem

GRS readers were upset at how things played out. Here’s a typical response from a reader named SHS:

What a shame that Erik felt compelled to take down his very useful creation! I definitely will NOT be buying It’s All Right Here — or anything else from that author and his publisher. If anyone has this file in Excel format — or editable PDF format — please let me know via a follow-up comment.

Essentially, everyone in this scenario loses:

  • Dewey is forced to take down his Big Book of Everything.
  • Denizens of the web no longer have access to this free life-affairs organizer.
  • Gavagan and his project get negative publicity.

In fact, I’m the only one who wins because I get to write this article about how not to handle conflict resolution.

How would I have handled the situation? First, let’s make it clear that this is no Kobayashi Maru.

In fact, there were a number of WIN-WIN scenarios available to Gavagan and Dewey. As a (mostly) impartial third-party observer, I think that one of the scenarios is far superior to all others. If I had the power to shape things to what I consider an ideal outcome, here’s what would happen:

  • Dewey would re-post his Big Book of Everything, both in PDF and Excel formats, just as before.
  • Dewey would also offer links to Gavagan’s products: The It’s All Right Here organizer and the new, smaller spiral-bound version, 12 Critical Things. He might even include info on these products from within the Big Book of Everything.

I think Dewey’s message should be: “I’ve created this free organizer. It’s pretty useful. But if you want something more comprehensive, check out these products from Mark Gavagan.” And I actually think Gavagan could profit by bringing Dewey on to consult with him, to create digital versions of his products for people to download.

To me, that’s a WIN-WIN scenario.

Conclusion

The older I get, the more I realize that much of what I do and choose is predicated on the avoidance of conflict. I’m still a competitive guy — deep inside, I still long for those days that Kris and I played games with Mac and Pam a couple of nights per week — but there’s a difference between competition and conflict.

To me, conflict is non-productive. It produces losers. It lessens everyone involved in some way. This is one reason that I so loathe the American political process and the petty conflicts it produces. This is why I smack down negative elements at Get Rich Slowly. And it’s also why I think shows like Battlestar Galactica are far less than they could be. (Battlestar‘s modus operandi seems to be “conflict for conflict’s sake”.)

I’m disappointed that Gavagan and Dewey arrived at a LOSE-LOSE solution. I think outcomes like this subtract something from the universe. (Boy, that sounds all mystical, doesn’t it? I don’t mean it that way.) I’m a firm believer in the notion of social capital. I’ve come to understand that WIN-WIN solutions build social capital, and lots of it. But the LOSE-LOSE option weakens everyone.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew Reusche 28 July 2009 at 12:02

Nice article. David Hobby is the man.

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2 kel 28 July 2009 at 12:04

this reminds me of all the movements toward openness: open gov, open sourcing. i think this sort of thing is one of the biggest struggles with current technology. i think a paradigm shift is coming where people will no longer expect to be the primary beneficiaries of their own creations. credit, over compensation, will have to be good enough.

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3 jdroth 28 July 2009 at 12:19

@kel (#2)
Yes, I think you’re right. This is actually one of the themes in the new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price that everyone is talking about. There is some sort of paradigm shift underway, one that’s leading to new forms of compensation for content creators. Here’s an example:

When people ask me how they can support me at Get Rich Slowly (or any other site), they generally mean “should I click on your ads?” I always tell them not to click on the ads. If you want to support me and my writing, the best thing you can do is link to my site. Link to the articles that you think are good. Share them on social networking sites. The next best thing you can do is tell your family and friends. These things are worth far more to me than one person clicking on an ad.

Yet traditional media doesn’t see it that way. (And neither did Gavagan during the life-affairs book conflict.) Traditional media is focused solely on immediate monetary payoffs. They have no concept of slowly building something that can be monetized in other ways. This is one of the things that Chris Guillebeau writes about so insightfully.

Anyhow — I agree. It’s an interesting shift. :)

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4 Mike Jones 28 July 2009 at 13:13

@jdroth: you are dead-on regarding links; they are the currency of the web. If you like something, link to it and share the link. And think about how you share it—a personal email to a small group of people holds far more weight then a twitter post to all of your ‘followers.’

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5 Eden 28 July 2009 at 12:19

Excellent breakdown of these different scenarios.

I’m listening to the “How to Win Friends and Influence People” audiobook right now, and your example of the win-win scenario echoes a lot of the advice in that book. David Hobby really handled that situation wonderfully and it created the opportunity for the win-win scenario. I always used to think books like How To Win[...] were a bit gimmicky or silly, but I’m starting to become a believer.

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6 Jérôme Aoustin 28 July 2009 at 12:22

Very good post. A book that I read and highly recommend, which also discusses the different approaches of conflict resolution:
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

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7 Matt BW 28 July 2009 at 12:50

Great article and a great subject. I think this kind of wisdom also comes with age, and in business they talk about win win all the time, but rarely do they mean it. This is a genuine example of win win. Inspiring stuff.

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8 Matt Jabs 28 July 2009 at 12:51

Interesting. For me, everything discussed in the post and in the comments parallels the — reality versus ideas — debate put forth in The Lesson portion of the Henry Hazlitt masterpiece “Economics in one Lesson”.

The book discusses the difference between classical economists who errantly focused solely on long-term cause/effect of economic policy, and modern economists (and political figures) who errantly focus solely on short-term cause/effect of their policy adoption. Then goes on to explain how both are missing the mark by not working together to shape policy that delivers an outcome that is equally beneficial in the short and the long term.

I am also reminded of this beloved William Arthur Ward quote, which we can all learn a great measure from:

“Flatter me, and I may not believe you. Criticize me, and I may not like you. Ignore me, and I may not forgive you. Encourage me, and I will not forget you. Love me and I may be forced to love you.”

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9 Mike K. in Venice, CA 28 July 2009 at 13:06

Your situation continues to be a Win-Win. I came over to read this article from a tweet posted by David Hobby. GRS is *very* cool. I think you’ve just found another regular reader :)

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10 jason 28 July 2009 at 13:06

Great article and further evidence of the class act DH is… To put another emphasis on it… I had compiled his lighting 101 into a pdf a few years back for reading during commutes. Then asked iuf he would mind if I shared it. After his explanation not only did I NOT share the pdf, I deleted it permanently. Giving respect is a necessary prerequisite to earning it and DH has earned mine!

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11 adam 28 July 2009 at 14:04

This is a great article. I have it bookmarked and will refer to it prior to responding to a conflict the next time one arrises in my life.

thanks

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12 Kimberly 28 July 2009 at 15:09

I’m afraid Mark Gavagan has lost a sale. I downloaded and checked out Erik Dewey’s file, but I found it lacking. I also checked out Gavagan’s website and looked at the sample pages of his product, and thought that I would like to purchase it, but the $50 price tag was steep so I put it on my Amazon Wishlist and made a mental note to purchase it when I had some free cash flow. However, Gavagan’s actions you described here have turned me off. I will find another way to organize my information.

I agree with you. This could have been a win-win situation. Obviously there were potential customers like me who would find advantages in a more comprehensive product and Gavagan could have benefited from a mutually beneficial relationship with Dewey.

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13 Matt 28 July 2009 at 20:29

Thank you for this. I think this is a little reminder we can all use.

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14 Clay 28 July 2009 at 21:13

Speaking of Win-Win and the fact that not *everything* has to be competitive, Douglas Rushkoff tackles similar issues with his new book Life, Inc.

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15 Suzanne 28 July 2009 at 23:24

I like this “other” side of J.D. :-)

Great examples. I truly believe in finding/developing something into a win-win. I am not aggressive and competitive, but rather supportive, so I want both to feel the win.

I like how Hobby’s response was very direct and didn’t make him appear weak. He definitely knows how to illicit a response in someone and to provide them with an out, so that hopefully they are wise enough to accept the win-win resolution. I remember looking at Dewey’s project. What a shame that it turned out the way it did.

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16 Mark Gavagan 29 July 2009 at 03:12

(this is a copy of my post on J.D.’s “Get Rich Slowly” blog)

Dear J.D. and readers,

I can appreciate that many people are frustrated about this, but here’s my point of view (which I’ve shared with many writers of very nasty emails I’ve received):

Every book, blog, song, film, speech, article and website stands to some degree on the shoulders of others – bits and pieces of others’ work are consciously or unconsciously incorporated into every “original” work. This is an important element of how ideas evolve – as John Donne says, “No man is an island.”

So the question we should be considering isn’t whether some elements of one person’s work are drawn directly from the work of others. The question is “At what point is the line crossed and too much taken?”

Two points to consider are: (1) Was the “heart” of the work taken?; and (2) Does the new work fulfill the demand for the original?

(see <a href="http://fairuse.stanford.edu/Copyright_and_Fair_Use_Overview/chapter9/9-b.html" http://fairuse.stanford.edu/Copyright_and_Fair_Use_Overview/chapter9/9-b.html by Richard Stim, J.D. for a short-but-excellent read about principles of fair use)

While I agree Erik’s entire work is certainly not a duplicate copy of mine, there was enough to cause genuine concern.

Please take a moment to compare the table of contents for the free online document to the table of contents for my book. If you didn’t know, someone has found a cached copy and listed how to access it in the comments of the “Get Rich Slowly” blog entry.

Here’s a link to the PDF for my book’s table of contents:

http://www.affairsorganizer.com/Majr_Sections.pdf

Once you compare them, I think you’ll see very quickly it’s close to identical, copying the entire organization and thinking behind my book, which I devoted myself to for almost 15 months because of my terrible personal experience in trying to get through all these issues when my Dad died in 2003.

Please contact Erik yourself. He’s a very nice and intelligent guy and he’ll tell you there was no talk whatsoever about threats or lawsuits or copyright infringement.

I very politely and respectfully described my concerns about how similar elements of his are to the book I put all my effort into and that his free book might have a serious impact on demand for my books (including my new much shorter and cheaper one: http://12criticalthings.com/ ).

I asked Erik to please consider taking his book down and replacing with a link to my new shorter book and a code that would donate 20% to the charity of his choice.

Instead, he generously decided to take down his links because he didn’t intend to harm my little one-person business.

I’m not some terrible person – I’m just a guy who has put everything he has into these books and I’m trying to make a go of it, even though it’s a difficult struggle.

Thanks for your time.

Sincerely,

-Mark Gavagan

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17 jdroth 29 July 2009 at 06:34

Thanks, Mark, for joining the conversation. I think this last point needs to be stressed:

I’m not some terrible person – I’m just a guy who has put everything he has into these books and I’m trying to make a go of it, even though it’s a difficult struggle.

As I said in this post, I really do think you’re a good guy, and I’m not meaning to demonize you here. But when this occurred, I was struck by how similar it was to the situation I encountered with David Hobby, and I was interested to see how it played out. After reading the reader responses at Get Rich Slowly, I was moved to write about the different outcomes.

I still think there’s a chance to find a better solution…

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18 Ryan 29 July 2009 at 04:16

The older I get, the more I realize that much of what I do and choose is predicated on the avoidance of conflict.

I totally feel this way too! At times it makes me feel like I’m Larry David or something, but I just don’t have the time or attention to deal with drama.

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19 Andrew 29 July 2009 at 05:02

An excellent article and a great find for a first time visitor to this site. I’ve now subscribed to your posts.

It is a shame regarding the lose-lose situation that happened. I hope they reassess, especially if they read your post. I always try and find the win-win situation myself and wish more people would in life, whether in business or personal situations.

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20 Jeff 29 July 2009 at 11:50

By all means, defend what you have created. But when you ask, ‘how much is too much’ you must realize that you are contributing to that line become wider and beyond fuzzy at the edges.

If our current DMCA driven copyright system had been in place during the early printing press days, Shakespeare, Chaucer, the modern Bible, Edison, Tesla, Benjamin Franklin, the majority of magazines/newspapers, most TV stations, sports/olympic statistics, software, hardware, cars, microwaves, fridges, etc… all would be obsolete. Each would have been stifled to the point of uselessness. A select few would have been granted an artificial 100 year monopoly that would have completely slowed down the progress of man and drastically lessened the quality of our lives.

I’m glad the 2 of you are amiable over all of this, but the end result is stupid. Competition is inherit risk in any market, and similarities with such an obvious topic are unavoidable. If your for profit book is not as good as a free one, you need to add incentives or value to your product. The obvious choice since both of your fates are now intertwined for the worse would be to collaborate on a revision, or as this blog’s author suggests embed links into the PDF and wash your hands of it.

This is yet another example of the Streisand Effect ( http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20030624/1231228.shtml ).

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21 Wing Wong 29 July 2009 at 12:53

I’m a strobist reader who arrived here thanks to a tweet link (thank you twirl/twitter/etc).

I’ll definitely be a new follower of your postings as well.

As for the lose-lose situation with the published book and the free ebook download… it is truly regretable. I agree that J.D.’s suggestion for a win-win solution is something that can benefit both parties and allow two people to gain.

Wing.

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22 Kira 29 July 2009 at 14:42

Interesting post. I think you’re right that perhaps the situation could have been resolved better and I like your option of Dewey offering Gavagan’s products on his site as a win-win. Unfortunately, we don’t always think of these things at the moment and perhaps it’s just a matter of doing the best you can with the ideas/info you have at the time. I do see from reading Gavagan’s post above that he did offer an alternative with a donation to charity, but Dewy I guess opted not to go with that.

I also have to say, I read the comments over on GRS and was shocked by the vitriol being spewed over there by a bunch of people who obviously only had one side of the story. The internet brings out the worst in people – allowing them to say things they’d never say to someone’s face.

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23 Michael 10 September 2009 at 21:47

Great article. Goes to show that win-win is great, but not great for everyone. I’m pretty sure Mr Gavegan doesn’t think he’s lost. While it might not be a perfect outcome, it’s an outcome that he’s happy to live with.

On the same side, someone else might have taken the win-lose choice you were offered to fulfill some other requirement like atone for their sin. I’ve seen many potential win-win solutions destroyed because of someone’s ego or flawed ideals or just because they always have to win while others lose.

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