Dispute Resolution through Visual Thinking

As you can tell from my last post, I’m a big fan of visual thinking and visual management tools. I personally use the Lean Canvas and the Business Model Canvas for both myself and my clients, but I’ve often thought that the idea of a canvas would work well in other areas of legal practice as well.

A while back I spent some time with Jim Levy, a professional mediator in Seattle, and out of our conversation came the idea spark for a tool that I’m calling the Dispute Resolution Canvas. Since that spark, I’ve prototyped it with several others folks, both attorneys and non-attorneys, for testing and tweaking. Specifically, I got tremendous feedback from Jason Gershenson who has used it in his own practice to help him understand disputes among business partners; Gabriel Key, an Agile consultant (and excellent chef) with a background in international negotiation at the UN, and Prof. Daniel Linna who is the Dean of Career Development and Professor of Dispute Resolution at Michigan State Law School.

Without further ado, I present the Dispute Resolution Canvas:

For a PDF version that will print up to 3 x 5 feet, please fill out the form below and I will email you a link. (post continues after the form)

Get the Dispute Resolution Canvas

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The idea is fairly simple: Each box is meant to capture a specific type of information about the parties involved in the dispute, their drivers, and the issues at play. You’ll see that there is some balance to it, with your client’s information captured on the left-hand side and the other party’s information on the right. My hope (and the experience of those who have used it so far) is that the act of systematically addressing the questions posed in each of the boxes will give you—and your client—a much clearer sense of the dispute itself and, ideally, help suggest some ways to resolve it.

At the outside edges are the drivers for each party, whether those drivers be financial, emotional, situational, or any combination of the above. Immediate below that is space to capture each party’s ideal outcome, or what they hope to achieve from the dispute (no matter how realistic that outcome might be).

Moving inward (we’ll get back to the bottom boxes), the next box is meant to capture the resources available to each party. These too might take many forms, from deep pockets to a fierce determination to a depth of experience with similar disputes. Below that is space to capture some possible good alternatives (if any) to resolving the dispute quickly; perhaps the party might be better off litigating, or trying to win a PR battle, or maybe their best option is to simply walk away.

The middle boxes are, as you might expect, meant to capture common ground as well as the main open issues that are being negotiated. Finally, the bottom two boxes are where you can capture elements of each party’s negotiating position, including high-level legal arguments and defenses, moral authority, or anything else you might find applicable.

A few suggestions: As with other canvas-style tools, this canvas is meant to be adaptable and temporal. I recommend using sticky-notes to capture ideas for each box so that you can play with the wording and the relative position of each element without having to re-write the whole canvas. I also suggest printing it as large as you’re able and putting it on the wall (or even transcribing it to a whiteboard) so that it has presence and visibility. If you do make it large, however, be sure to use bigger sticky notes and a fat pen—this is meant to provide you with a high-level view, not a detailed playbook.

You might even want to make different versions for a dispute and test your theories by bouncing them off of clients and colleagues. Specifically, the canvas will force you to make some assumptions about the other party’s interests and position and you will want to come up with ways to validate those assumptions to improve your understanding of the dispute. Honestly, this is probably true of your client’s position too.

You also will probably want to re-visit the canvas from time to time to see how the various entries change. Perhaps the deep emotional reserves (or the financial ones) you thought your client had at the onset of the dispute will start to deteriorate after awhile, or maybe what a party thinks of as an “ideal” outcome will evolve. You can use the canvas to test how your initial assumptions are holding up over time.

But most of all I hope you use it and let me know how it goes. Please feel free to email me or tweet at me or otherwise let me know what you like, what you don’t, and what you would change. First impressions are great, actual use cases are better.

Finally, some housekeeping items: The original Business Model Canvas on which this is based is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License, and this Dispute Resolution Canvas uses that license as well. Feel free to copy, distribute, adapt, remix, and share it with whomever you please, but give credit both to me and to the Business Model Canvas as you send your version on downstream.

That’s it for now. I’d love to hear your stories and thoughts about how this tool works for you. As always, I love to talk about anything having to do with legal operations, so feel free to contact me or set up an initial consultation to see how I might be able to help you improve yours.

© 2015, John E. Grant

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