New guard, old guard

One of last week's meetings I was involved in had the effect of highlighting the culture clashes which occur when old and new ways of doing things seem oppositional. Two of these in particular highlighted this, and left me wondering how to manage these in real time – away from the safe theory of BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement) or other structured ways of handling and mediating disputes and conflicts.

The two meetings were very different. The first involved me (new to organization) and long-server (21 years) in one room talking on the phone with another new to organization person about the teleworking and how to develop a strategy around teleworking. There were a number of differences in our perspectives with the two newcomers taking a very different stance from the long server. This was expressed at one level in very different language use, the newcomers talking about 'taking responsibility', 'owning their work', and 'choosing their work arrangements', while the long server talked about 'signed contracts with supervisors', 'reprimands for non-compliance', and 'getting manager approvals'.

In the second meeting which was much larger there were essentially three groups of people – two different organizations but with one of the organizations being represented by old and new guard. The purpose of this meeting was to develop a strategy around space use. The particular discussion point was occupancy requirements – what are the space needs of the proposed tenants in the building? This time it was less language and more approach that highlighted the differences between old and new members of the organization, with the second organization siding with the new comers. Not an easy discussion.

The argument hinged on the question of "should you ask people what space needs they have?" The old guard was very definite that this was an imperative. The new guard took the view that if you ask people what they need they'll tell you that they need what they've currently got plus some.

Since the space won't be available for use for a few years to the newcomers asking what they need seemed a flawed approach. Their argument was that work styles and available technologies are changing rapidly so let's project out what the working world might look like in five years and ask occupants to imagine themselves in that environment and then ask for space requirements.

In any event, the organizational strategy is to reduce space use and drive mobile working in all its forms. Thus a third approach – also favored by the new guard but not the old guard who think it 'won't happen' is to simply tell current occupants that they'll have three-quarters less space than they currently have and it will be shared. And in this scenario offer to work with them to organize their work and work arrangements differently to accommodate this space reduction.

The long servers saw some merits in 'futuring' but felt it would take too much time and people wouldn't be able to cope with the idea that they would not get the amount of space that they currently have. Additionally they have always done space planning in the way they want to do it and see little reason to change their own approach to this particular task. The new employees understand that there are some important aspects of the space that need to be planned now because they are part of the building construction, but see no need to plan any of the other space which, it has already been decided, should be wholly flexible.

So I'm now wondering how to handle this situation in a way that the new guard is not steam rollering the old guard, and the old guard is not ploughing ahead in the traditional way on the assumption that the new guard will disappear in due course and all talk of space sharing, tele commuting, doing things differently will sink without trace (vindicating the approach of asking for current space requirements).

Four possibilities seem plausible:

• Open a mediated discussion on what are at base two different perspectives, aiming to understand each other's and reach some mutual understanding and agreement. (Rational approach)

• Accept the differences and aim to achieve out a way that is workable to all, accepting the different perspectives. (Pragmatic approach)

• "Prove" that work is changing, other organizations are reducing space, we're not in the vanguard but laggards in this. (Evidence based approach)

• Continue to fight for the 'right' way of approaching the task of space planning and wait for a victor to emerge. (Steamroller approach)

I'm reminded of Machiavelli's words:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.