Breaking Gridlock and Solving Problems: Lessons from the Global Warming Debate



  • Working in small groups and embracing fragmentation creates opportunities for quick wins
  • Properly framing the risks, rewards, barriers and opportunities is essential in any negotiation

Environment and energy policy expert David G. Victor has been on the front lines of global environmental diplomacy for more than 20 years, so your ears perk up when he says, “The effect of all environmental treaties is nearly zero, and it’s time we seriously asked the question, ‘Is climate too hard to solve?’”

If you’ve been involved in breaking gridlock and solving problems you’ll almost certainly empathize with Victor’s frustration. Problems may seem unsolvable, particularly when motivations, authority and resources are not aligned, as in international emissions negotiations.

In the face of such constraints, how can you break the gridlock?

Reframe the Approach, And Your Definition of Success

Speaking at the UT Energy Forum in February, Victor said he finds no surprise in the lack of initiative on global emissions. “Progress on climate requires governments to do things governments have a hard time doing,” he acknowledges. “There are high upfront costs with uncertain long-term results; and as industrial growth and emissions evolve across the globe, the natural leaders on climate issues change.”

He suggests a four-point approach for breaking gridlock that can work in any complex organization:

  1. Learn to Work in Small Groups. U.N. negotiations are necessarily complex and many countries simply don’t want them to succeed. (Does that sound similar to your organization’s decision structure?) Victor encourages diplomats to continue high-level global talks, while also embracing smaller efforts focused on countries where easy and early wins can be made. Striving first for smaller successes allows concepts to be tested, models to be refined, and support to be gathered as the new approach gains momentum.
  2. Embrace Fragmentation. In the world of global diplomacy, a webbed hierarchy of agreements, initiatives, protocols and actions is honored as the means for moving forward in a unified, cohesive manner. Large organizations thrive on a fabric of interweaved policies, procedures, and layers of decision structure — all of which can be deadly for innovation or action. Victor argues that fragmentation is acceptable, particularly in the face of gridlock and in areas where forward progress of any kind is preferable to doing nothing.
  3. Build Credibility With Quick Wins. Lowering CO2 emissions is a key component of climate policy, but because of high upfront costs and large economic risks, Victor considers it an issue designed to fail. He encourages policy negotiators to instead focus on reducing soot, an issue where progress can be achieved more quickly and with lower cost. “Making progress on soot will demonstrate that when countries work together the efforts are credible,” he says. “Credibility is the beginning, middle and end of all international negotiations.”
  4. Rewire the Assumptions. International trade rules currently make it harder for countries to address the underlying costs of emissions. When U.S. companies outsource production to China, the costs of emissions stay in China while consumers enjoy the benefits of low prices here in the States. Victor believes that until the environmental cost of emissions is properly accounted for, the motivations for change will be misaligned and climate progress will continue to stall. Properly framing the risks, rewards, barriers and opportunities is essential in any decision negotiation, and a smart negotiator will not allow others to define the assumptions upon which a decision is to be based.

Sacrifice for Thee But Not for Me?

Rewiring assumptions is easier to suggest than to accomplish, especially with global economies and national pride in the mix. Gaylen Paulson, head of the Texas Executive Education program and an expert on complex negotiations, says self-serving bias naturally enters into discussions involving parties with competing interests.

“It’s true that 99 percent of people agree their neighbor should take the bus to work,” he says. “We all agree other individuals or nations need to make changes, but fail to recognize our own ‘objective’ point of view is clouded by self interest.”

While one party or the other may steamroll the process to their own advantage, Paulson says recognizing the other’s view of the issue is essential to achieving an agreement that will actually be implemented.

Victor agrees national interests have made quantifiable progress on climate control nearly impossible. “Diplomats have been producing faux treaties designed to show compliance,” he complains. “The desire to have a simple strategy to achieve bold goals hasn’t worked for the last 25 years.”

As he continues his advocacy for quick environmental wins in small, focused areas across the globe, Victor sees a glimmer of hope for tangible progress, “even though it will be slow and messy.”

Such a process, as daunting as it sounds, may be exactly what your organization needs for breaking gridlock and solving problems in pursuit of innovation, profits and market share.

David Wenger writes about brand identity, consumer behavior, innovation and creativity on his blog, ID University, where this article originally appeared.


Faculty in this Article

Gaylen Paulson

Associate Dean & Director, Texas Executive Education McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin

Paulson's research and teaching are focused on the strategic aspects of interacting with people, including negotiation, conflict management,...

Gaylen Paulson teaches in the Texas Executive Education program, featuring open enrollment, custom and certificate classes for executives and organization teams.

About The Author

David Wenger

Director of Communications, McCombs School of Business

David Wenger is the director of communications at the McCombs School of Business. He writes primarily on topics of innovation, competition and human...

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