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Case Study: United We Stand, Divided We Fall

by on March 2, 2010

In any group, differences of opinion are natural and expected. But if the differences are so divergent that they threaten the very fate of the group’s innovation, then it can lead to dire consequences. In the following fictitious case study, we will see how diversity in partners’ opinions can lead to conflicts in decision-making. Three students, Natasha, Ishaan and Nikhil have achieved a breakthrough in their final-year project. However, they face problems when they are unable to reach a mutually agreeable decision, regarding how to proceed with a business plan to commercialize their innovation. Each of the three has an equal share in the project work, but each one of them has a different opinion about the future of their innovation. Will their lack of consensus lead to their innovation not being realized?


From → Coursework

  1. Colin Anderson permalink

    To oversimplify, it is the human element that makes business complicated. In our recent studies of coordination and motivation, we have considered the problem of how to create a productive whole out of many people with disparate goals and perspectives. This case study approaches the same issue from a more personal angle. In particular, the challenge here is one of ownership and of implicit agreements. It sounds as though the three students had different expectations and that their perspectives and personal goals were not well communicated; further, with no formal structure or hierarchy, they have no clear way to handle difficult decisions.

    Ideally this should have been discussed and made explicit much earlier in the project time-frame, especially with such a lucrative opportunity, though as they are young students with likely little business experience, it is understandable that this was not done. It is also simply difficult in practice to sort such things out early, as many partnerships are created in an organic, gradual way, and it’s likely they were only thinking of the challenge, not the ramifications, when they first began work. Ultimately their focus on immediate challenges and their failure to consider the long-term ramifications of their situation have exacerbated an already-difficult problem.

    The question is this: how do three people with implicitly equal ownership in a project but no explicit agreements resolve a serious dispute over the fundamental direction of the project? There is no straightforward answer to that question, and so our answer is not so much about what they should do as how they should decide what to do. Using Mr. Garg as a neutral, third-party moderator will aid in helping the group members fully express their stance on the situation, however ultimately they will need to be the ones to decide the fate of the partnership and project – not Mr. Garg.

    An important first step would be for each student to accept that the others have different goals, and that each of those goals is important and valid. Each student will need to be completely honest with each other about their priorities as individuals and as a group. Their collaboration has been valuable, and whether or not they continue to work together on this project, they could be worthwhile allies and potential future partners in various projects – burning bridges would not be beneficial to anyone at this point. If they can each understand and accept the others’ opinions rather than taking an antagonistic, all-or-nothing stance, they’re likely to benefit much more in the long run, whether they stay together or not. It would be ideal if a compromise could be made that would benefit all parties to a certain degree, however it is fairly certain that each person will have to give up something – and even if they don’t have to give something up, they might not get what they want in the way they might be expecting it.

    Given these considerations, our main suggestion is that the students agree to partially dissolve their partnership. If Dr. Rao would be willing to hire Nikhil without also taking ownership of the project, then Nikhil could accept that offer as an individual, and work for Dr. Rao on other projects. He should retain some ownership of the joint project, and perhaps be available for some limited degree of consulting. Natasha and Ishaan could also work remotely for the group in India and Saudi Arabia, while maintaining an active interest in individual projects. It is possible that Ishaan’s uncle would be willing to finance them even if they were initially based in India; if they are successful enough, they might have the potential to operate out of both countries simultaneously. Perhaps Ishaan will be willing to work in India if he has hope that they will have offices in both countries soon.

    The alternative — that two of them agree to give up their own particular goals and choose the one preferred by the third — is still very much an option. The group should discuss this for a while, and do some serious thinking, individually, about how important this project is to each of them. This should not be considered for too long, however — once it is fairly clear to each that they are not willing to compromise, they should split up, at least to some degree, as described above.

    – Colin Anderson, Ross Donaldson and Surry Jones

  2. Nishant permalink

    Executive Responses:

    Trevor Boll
    Company Name: Deloitte LLP.
    Title: Partner

    I really like the idea here and the situation you have created. This certainly does present significant challenges when the founders have 3 very differing views and priorities. There really is no easy answer here. One avenue to explore is to potentially license out the technology as a means of satisfying two of the objectives. On one hand, this could benefit the local government by allowing use of the IP. At the same time, the founders could continue developing out applications for their innovation either through an incubator or as a startup.

    I would also want to take a hard look at the need for all 3 of them to continue functioning as a team and at what point is the technology developed enough to allow the 3 of them to then part ways to fulfill their own personal objectives. Perhaps this point in the life cycle can be identified and agreed upon now such that once that milestone is achieved, the team can part ways and individually advance the technology in whatever manner they want.

    Sujatha Balu
    Company name: Merck
    Title: Principal Analyst
    Job Function: Program Manager for Global IT
    Phone: 908-740-6345

    Nice case study. Here is my strategy to reach consensus among these three friends. Please feel free to reword to fit your presentation, just writing this informally.

    Key Resolution Strategy —
    1) It is clearly evident that all 3 friends have contributed equally and worked very hard for this success. It also seems that the success will be quickly lost without their unified buy in.
    2) The first thing to do is to listen carefully to the full story from each person, this has already occurred.
    3) Now, Garg has to engage the three stakeholders first by clearly stating the goals. The goal here is to work with 100% participation towards a resolution that makes sense to everyone. This can only be done by starting to have an open mind. It is fine to agree to disagree. But, you have to first listen to each other. A clear vision needs to emerge from the 3 stakeholders that can help define the actual issue at hand and their final goal.
    4) The stakeholders along with Garg should try to approach this with a full commitment to achieve a resolution. There should be commitment to adopt a rational mind. This can be achieved by thinking of the situation as a problem rather than emotional issues and working together to solve the issue. Just like the time and effort spent by the 3 friends to crack the compound.
    5) Each person’s idea should be documented with clear pros and cons. All ideas should be compared for their relative pluses and minuses. A weighted method can be used if this is easier for the scientific minded stakeholders. Each idea and its components should be assigned weights based on importance. This will help find an optimal solution through a scientific method.
    6) Hybrid approaches can also be considered. Maybe some ideas from each person make sense?
    7) Brainstorming is a very effective approach that can also help here. With this approach, all participants agree to listen to all ideas and not criticize. This environment will foster free sharing of ideas.
    8) The team should work to identify ways for achieving mutual gain. With this approach, stakeholders will be more ready to listen to ideas and deliberate without criticism. If you separate the idea relation to the person, the idea will be evaluated clearly rather than think of it as someone’s specific idea. The true merits or disadvantages of the idea will be evaluated without personal bias.
    9) Last but not the least, we cannot assume that the approach satisfies all 3 people’s needs. This will never happen. This does not mean that we should leave one contributor out and disregard their case. Natasha has a strong personal concern about her family which cannot be disregarded. She has a valid reason for wanting to stay in India. Instead the stakeholders have to formulate a win-win situation. If it is determined that for the greater good of the innovation, it is better to take it abroad, maybe the stakeholders can work out a situation where Natasha can be rewarded or contribute to the launch using an alternate method. Achieving consensus does not mean 100% satisfaction to everyone. This should be clearly understood. 100% consensus is agreeing that the solution can address the identified problem fully, even if not everyone got everything they wanted.

    Shankar Allimatti
    Company: Tech Mahindra Ltd
    Title: Vice President

    In my opinion they should start their own company with funding from Venture capital firms.
    Reasons being,
    1. Having seen the first level success they could confidently approach
    venture capitals for funding the further research.
    2. Dr. RAO and Ishaan’s uncle could fund and be on their board.
    3. Innovation could be progressed for maturity level and will remain with them.
    4. Experienced people like Dr.Rao and Ishaan’s uncle will help them taking this product to market as they have their stake.
    5. This way all the three innovators’ view points are taken care and the way forward.
    6. Success of innovation will give all of the great satisfaction and financial gains.
    7. Win-Win for all the stake holders and Innovators.

    Ajay Goel
    Company name: Elucido Media Networks
    Title: Vice President
    Job Function: Enterprise Business
    Phone: O (India): +91.80.4243.0909 | M (India): +91.9880360261

    In my opinion, Nikhil’s suggestion on Dr. Rao is the best option.
    1.They don’t need to be funded/gives them an
    opportunity/freedom to further experiment and gain experience without any tensions/give back to their own country.
    2.Nikhil’s financial situation is taken care.
    3.Natasha situation of staying in the country will be solved.
    4.Ishaan can start off here at SOCL get more experience and a few years later join his uncle at a higher position with the experience gained or be a consultant to his uncle which would indeed be better.
    In this way all 3 of them gain in their individual ways.

  3. Surry Jones permalink

    Overall, I enjoyed reading this case study and it made me reflect on group dynamics for course projects. Funny enough, it reminded me of the “ladder of accountability” some of us learned about in Project Management during Fall quarter. Perhaps if the group had discussed their personal interests and expectations with regards to the project at the very beginning of the timeline, they may not have come to this dispute.

  4. Sreedhar Vangavolu,
    Booz & Co.

    “As you rightly mentioned below, the case is short on the details to reflect upon except that the trio has some compound that could reduce fuel efficiency by 15%. However, I understand the broader issue the group is trying to resolve and offer the following approach to resolve such conflicts. The group could consider using a logical and parametric based approach to identify, tabulate and address all the concerns methodically.

    Divide the differences into primarily two categories. a. Business b. Emotional
    Note that emotional differences are very hard to solve and need lot of bargaining power and bartering.

    Tabulate the business differences for each of the individuals. Examples of differences I noted here are,
    a. Start-up
    b. Partnering with private corporation (Dr. Rao)

    Conduct thorough business-case analysis of the compound (every b-school teaches this… I will not be exhaustive in the list)
    a. What is the market and potential customers, their characteristics, etc.
    b. What are the competitive products in the market i.e. perform a thorough SWOT on the product
    c. What are the financial benefits of various business options (partnering with corporate, start-up, etc.) including exit strategy in case of venture capital route
    Compare and contrast various business options to address step-2.

    Once the financial benefits are clear and there is agreement on business-options, hopefully some of the emotional differences can be addressed in the process. However, the remainder of emotional differences can only be resolved on the merit of individual negotiations. There is no silver bullet answer or approach to these issues. As an example, if the decision is to partner with a company in Saudi Arabia – an option could be to set-up or fund an R&D center in India to promote research (to satisfy the individual that wants to do good to India)..etc.

    Side Note:
    Also, I would caution the trio inside & outside the case on the potential benefits of the compound. A 15% reduction in fuel efficiency is not block-buster anymore. The dynamics of the arguments hinge heavily on such matters since some of the business differences can be addressed knowing what is perceived as important in the market. However, if the 15% fuel economy is offered as an example and it might as well could have been 100% reduction….then the discussion above might help resolve some of the differences.

    Hope this helps.”

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