Our Once and (Dimming?) Future Hope for a Professional Home: Peter Adler’s Letter to the Board of ACR


by Robert Benjamin

August 2005

Robert Benjamin (This article is the second of a series devoted to the state of our professional organization, The Association for Conflict Resolution. In the first article, “Dirty Little Secrets,” gives the background and sets the context for the series. In short, many feel the organization is in serious trouble and, if it is not already too late, there needs to be a serious discussion about the organization’s future.)

I have always believed that organizations, while clearly necessary, are almost always problematic for individual members. They invariably exact a cost in conformity that competes nip and tuck with the benefits obtained. Be they religions, clubs, fraternities, professional organizations, or even families, they can be oppressive at times. All but the families are voluntary associations that may be disowned but can never be completely quit. On the whole, my history with organizations is best summed up by the great Groucho Marx line, here paraphrased: “Any group that would have me for a member isn’t worth joining.”

That being said, I have not joined many organizations, professional or otherwise, unless required. Among the notable exceptions have been the former Academy of Family Mediators and Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, both now incorporated into the current Association for Conflict Resolution.

I thought these organizations were different. They appeared to be an iconoclastic integration of professionals from different disciplines who appeared committed not only to a more systemic approach to thinking about managing issues and conflicts in our society, but also sought to escape the constraints and limitations of the more established and tradition bound professions. While leaving discussions about licensure and certification for another time, the professional practice of mediation, for better or worse, has not yet become as professionalized as law, social work, or counseling, and other allied professions. Equally important, others involved in participating in the professional organizations seemed determined to bring their expressed practice principles and skills of candid dialogue and openness to the design and functioning of their own organization. While not perfect, AFM and SPIDR offered the kind of professional home I wanted and sought out personally, professionally and intellectually.

Roughly five years ago, I, as the then President of AFM, and Peter Adler, as the then President of SPIDR, played with the idea that along with CREnet, that a “…newly formed ACR would become a powerful, disciplined, and influential force in the world of conflict resolution.” Those are the words Peter Adler sent in his letter to the ACR Board of Directors just this past May 28th, of 2005. * He went on to say, “I believed then, and believe now, that a merger of organizations should logically create a stronger critical mass, a new set of synergies, smarter outputs, and impacts that had unparalleled excellence.”

Not only were those hopes not realized, it would appear that the merged organizations, have if anything, lost a considerable measure of vitality and momentum. We have been victims of unintended consequences---a ‘revenge effect’---an unanticipated result that is almost the exact opposite of the one expected and designed. This situation could be the result of a couple of different pressures. First, many practitioners are more interested and beholden to what is going on in the field in their local or regional areas, and see less relevance to what is happening nationally. Second, as the more business/labor/employment/health/environmental focused SPIDR came closer in it’s orbit to the family/divorce centric AFM, the notion was that mediators across contexts would cross-fertilize and learn from each other. Almost the exact opposite appears to have occurred. Being together in the same organization appears to have spurred the sections to distinguish themselves from each other and feel more compelled to become insular and separate from each other. The emphasis is less on what is common as mediators, and more on what is unique and specialized in their approach to mediation and conflict management in the particular subject matter practice context.

In this regard, Adler, who enjoys a well deserved reputation as one of the most thoughtful and highly regarded leaders in the field, wrote in his letter this most apt observation:

“As I look at the strategic plan that is emerging and talk with other old friends and colleagues who helped set the merger in motion, I am increasingly skeptical that ACR can survive on its current trajectory. The strategy, though well written, comprehensive, and inclusive of many different interests and needs, doesn’t really address the tough issues of focus and priority which, at the end of the day, is the key to survival. Like many other strategies I read these days, it feels like a “Platte River Plan,” something a mile wide, an inch deep, and a bit muddy and meandering.”

Adler goes on to observe and cogently frame the most ‘wicked’ problem facing ACR’s future as an organization, paraphrased as follows:

“(The) paradoxical reality (is that) despite the inflation of dispute resolution laws and rules, the rising flood of books and articles, the many well evolved graduate programs and training courses, and the vast numbers of people now professing to be mediators, we have reached that point where we are no longer a “field.” Our world as practitioners has changed, especially in the past 5 years. There is a growing universe of new people, new institutional programs, and new occupational adaptations that involve people who have never heard of ACR and would not find it useful as a professional or intellectual home if they did. …. ACR competes with (the) ABA… and many other organizations, associations, schools, and institutions for their attention and we assume that, at core, everyone who is a mediator shares something with everyone else who is a mediator.

That premise may have been true a decade ago when our work was exotic and new, but it doesn’t hold true today. Environmental mediators have more in common with water lawyers, climate scientists, and EPA officials than they do with workplace mediators… Family mediators gravitate to psychotherapists, family lawyers, and family court judges long before they do to a mediator who works on construction and product liability cases.”

He offers the following conclusion and proposals for the Board’s consideration in his May 28th letter, that compels thoughtful and open discussion:

“So I fear the center cannot hold and the “field” will continue to balkanize in ways that militate against the financial survival of a large, single tent, generalist organization. ACR faces very big forces: specialization, routinization, and institutionalization. The days of the generalist mediator are coming to a rapid close. In the shift from “movement” to “mainstream,” the greatest locus of activities is sectoral. The action is, and will increasingly be, in the specialties: family, workplace, civil and commercial, environment, courts and regulatory agencies, and so on. This has a profound implication… if its true. Unless (ACR) dramatically, strategically, and perhaps exclusively focus on these, unless you find the “sweet spot” they all share, ACR can’t be held together in its present form.

So, as a radical alternative, and without changing the super ordinate goal of “being a voice for conflict resolution,” here is what I would suggest you consider as you try to figure out where you want to be by the end of 2007. Shrink, narrow, and focus. Instead of resisting the centrifugal forces that are at work, use an aikido strategy and help them along. Specifically, I would urge you to at least ponder a strategy that would over the next three years: 1.)Help each sector and chapter become independent or merge with other entities but try to retain them as organizational members. In other words, help them leave. 2.) Slowly, gracefully, and in a well planned manner, abandon individual memberships and becoming an “association of associations, organizations, and institutions.”

As Peter Adler’s colleague and friend, I am not sure yet whether or not I agree with him. But what is certain is that this critical discussion begin. This issue cannot be allowed to be avoided or postponed. It must be made the most prevalent topic of discussion at the 2005 Annual Conference in Minneapolis. If the Conference Committee or the Board do not seize the initiative and set aside sufficient time for the discussion, then the members must. It is simply too important an issue to leave to the Board of Directors and they should be held to account as the trustees of the organization to raise the issues. This goes to the very existence of, what I know for many in addition to us, the future of the organization that has been central to our professional work in one way or another, for the better part of our careers.

*The unabridged text of Peter Adler’s letter to the Board of Directors of ACR, May 28, 2005 is reprinted below.

Peter Adler, Ph.D., is president of the Keystone Science and Education Center in Keystone, Colorado. He is a former President of the Society for Professionals in Dispute Resolution and the author of numerous articles, book contributions and books.

5.28.05

TO: Larry Fong, President
Terry Wheeler, President Elect;
And the Board of Directors, ACR VIA: David Hart, Executive Director

FR: Peter Adler, Member

I apologize for the length of what follows. This letter is the culmination of a lot of mulling, a sometimes sideways attempt to connect disparate dots, conversations with some old friends and colleagues (who are getting copies), and an optimistic hope that one or more ideas might have traction for you as you wrestle out ACR’s possible futures, which I know you are doing. I don’t look to you for a response and if I hurt anyone’s feelings or some protocol I don’t know about, I apologize in advance.

When SPIDR, AFM, and CREnet merged several years ago, I had big hopes that the newly formed ACR would become a powerful, disciplined, and influential force in the world of conflict resolution. I believed then, and believe now, that a merger of organizations should logically create a stronger critical mass, a new set of synergies, smarter outputs, and impacts that had unparalleled excellence.

For any of a number of reasons, that hasn’t happened. As I look at the strategic plan that is emerging and talk with other old friends and colleagues who helped set the merger in motion, I am increasingly skeptical that ACR can survive on its current trajectory. The strategy, though well written, comprehensive, and inclusive of many different interests and needs, doesn’t really address the tough issues of focus and priority which, at the end of the day, is the key to survival. Like many other strategies I read these days, it feels like a “Platte River Plan,” something a mile wide, an inch deep, and a bit muddy and meandering.

Anecdotally, these are the challenges I hear that you face:

  • A major financial drop associated with the impending end of Hewlett support;
  • A growing inability to provide membership support at current levels without dues increases;

  • Membership enrollments that are plateaued, low growth potential, and high expectations by members who pay dues;
  • Difficulties recruiting volunteers;

  • Staff reductions;

  • Disenchantment by many older and seasoned members of the three original organizations; and

  • Unrest in several sectors with the possibility of one or more of them bolting.

Admittedly, my perspective is parochial and I may factually have the above wrong. I acknowledge that I am one of that certain cohort of geezers that is increasingly out of touch and out of sync with ACR. I increasingly find my professional growth, reflection, and stimulation opportunities in other settings and gatherings. Further, I carry the bias of disappointment, i.e. the prejudice of someone who helped set the merger in motion out of a deep faith that none of our organizations could survive over the long run alone. I further own up that I was profoundly discouraged by the amount of time, money, and dithering it took to actually consummate the merger and the compounding failure to strategically build a new organizational culture while people from all three organizations dickered about process, succession, financial contributions, and so on. And admittedly, I still have great loyalty and affection for many of the people involved in all three originating organizations.

Having said this, I also know it is a mistake for me or anyone else to lay the current suite of problems at your feet. You didn’t create the mess. Moreover, I’ve been where you are. You are volunteers. You have limited time, your own livings to earn, not many resources to work with, and a few individual members out there who will peck you to death with small and hugely time consuming issues. Unfortunately, you do have the burden of now making the tough choices that are needed in the face of what may be an unsustainable program and business model. And you absolutely must make choices soon.

Here’s the new and paradoxical reality that I think you face. Despite the inflation of DR laws and rules, the rising flood of books and articles, the many well evolved graduate programs and training courses, and the vast numbers of people now professing to be mediators, we have reached that point when we are no longer a “field.” Our world as practitioners has changed, especially in the past 5 years. There is a growing universe of new people, new institutional programs, and new occupational adaptations that involve people who have never heard of ACR and would not find it useful as a professional or intellectual home if they did. They work in law firms, federal agencies, planning agencies, state courts, social work agencies, community organizations, and in some version of consulting in which mediation is just one of many things they do. ACR competes with ABA, IAPP, APA, AFCC and many other organizations, associations, schools, and institutions for their attention and we assume that, at core, everyone who is a mediator shares something with everyone else who is a mediator.

That premise may have been true a decade ago when our work was exotic and new, but it doesn’t hold true today. Environmental mediators have more in common with water lawyers, climate scientists, and EPA officials than they do with workplace mediators and labor arbitrators. Family mediators gravitate to psychotherapists, family lawyers, and family court judges long before they do to a mediator who works on construction and product liability cases. This doesn’t mean that people working as conflict resolvers in different areas don’t have things to learn from each other, or that occasional cross-disciplinary discussions are not of value. But those interactions tend not to sustain except in small gatherings of friends who have known each other for many years and who are in the same general cohort of age and experience. [1]

So I fear the center cannot hold and the “field” will continue to balkanize in ways that militate against the financial survival of a large, single tent, generalist organization. ACR faces very big forces: specialization, routinization, and institutionalization. The days of the generalist mediator are coming to a rapid close. In the shift from “movement” to “mainstream,” the greatest locus of activities is sectoral. The action is, and will increasingly be, in the specialties: family, workplace, civil and commercial, environment, courts and regulatory agencies, and so on. This has a profound implication for you if its true. Unless you dramatically, strategically, and perhaps exclusively focus on these, unless you find the “sweet spot” they all share, ACR can’t be held together in its present form. [2]

So, as a radical alternative, and without changing the super ordinate goal of “being a voice for conflict resolution,” here is what I would suggest you consider as you try to figure out where you want to be by the end of 2007. Shrink, narrow, and focus. Instead of resisting the centrifugal forces that are at work, use an aikido strategy and help them along. Specifically, I would urge you to at least ponder a strategy that would over the next three years:

1. Help each sector and chapter become independent or merge with other entities but try to retain them as organizational members. In other words, help them leave. 2. Slowly, gracefully, and in a well planned manner, abandon individual memberships and becoming an “association of associations, organizations, and institutions.” Become the Washington DC education/lobbying arm of those different groups that share common interests in monitoring and pursuing political, legal, social, economic, or regulatory developments and that agree to take actions together around any of a number of common interest issues: certification, unauthorized practice of law, the UMA, etc. [3] The organization I head, The Keystone Center, would certainly join if it was a one-stop shop for keeping us connected to many others. 3. Produce a single really bang-up weekly newsletter that tracks everything going on in all the organizations, schools, and agencies that are doing some specialized version of conflict resolution. Provide it to institutional and organizational members who then distribute it to their members as a benefit. At Keystone, we subscribe to a couple of very pricey weekly bulletins on the latest and greatest on energy, health, and environment issues, which are the arenas we mediate in. 4. Seriously rethink the annual conference and turn it into an “innovations think tank” that meets annually, is comprised of your member organizations and institutions, is organized around getting disparate viewpoints together, is open to the public, is fundable in part by grants, and is committed to helping people discover new uses and applications for conflict resolution. Again, market it to and through institutional and organizational members so you do not compete with your own members.

I am not close enough to the inner workings of ACR to know if the above is viable financially and operationally. Nor have I tried to think through what would be involved in the kind of transition the above may require. I do know that visualization of the end state is absolutely essential so you must have a coherent, grounded, and most of all sustainable idea of what you want to look like at the end of all your planning. Perhaps some of the above might be worth considering.

Finally, I subscribe to what Eric Shinseki said not too long ago in the face of great controversy and personal risk: “If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance a lot less.” [4] ACR must change, or it will slowly wither away.

Thank you for reading this, thank you for the good work you are doing, and Godspeed on managing the changes that, one way or another, lie ahead.

1 I belong to at least two small and slightly clubby circles of mediators who manage to meet once every year. These are low cost, self organizing, and high stimulation meetings that all of us cherish. We talk about new ideas, debate the issues of the day, learn a lot, and have a hell of a good time.

2 A “sweet spot” is a place of high efficiency and effect. It is the spot of lowest vibration and highest amplitude. See http://www.webball.com/skill/sweetspot.html .

3 Take a look at Research America as a possible model at http://www.researchamerica.org/ .

4 General Eric Shinseki is a former U.S. Army Chief of Staff (a Hawaii boy!) fired by Rumsfeld for contradicting the prevailing group-think at the Pentagon about the numbers of soldiers that would be needed on the ground after the Iraq invasion.



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Biography




Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care.  A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now  teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and training courses nationally and internationally.  He is a standing Adjunct Professor at  the Straus Institute for Conflict Resolution of the Pepperdine University School of Law, at Southern Methodist University’s Program on Conflict Resolution and in several other schools and universities.   He is a past President of the Academy of Family Mediators, a Practitioner Member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, and the American Bar Association’s Section on Dispute Resolution.    He is the author of numerous book contributions and articles, including “The Mediator As Trickster,”  “Guerilla Negotiation,” and “The Beauty of Conflict,” and is a Senior Editor and regular columnist for Mediate.com. 

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Website: www.rbenjamin.com

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