OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.


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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

Complexity Muddle

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The term "muddle" describes a decision making or conflict process which is so complicated that the parties are unable to approach the issues in a rational or sensible way. This tends to produce decisions and settlements which are later regretted, which likely will not work, and which the parties would not have accepted if they has understood the situation more clearly.There are two major areas in which complexity presents serious difficulties--factual complexity and procedural complexity.

Technical Complexity

Technical complexity involves difficulties in fact finding, technical information, and the systematic identification and analysis of options and their likely consequences. For example, conflicts involving the technical analysis of risks (of nuclear power plants, chemical plants, oil refineries, agricultural herbicides and pesticides) are often so complex that they lead to this kind of problem.  So too are conflicts over the economic effects of alternative trade policies or the environmental impacts of mining, logging and other extractive industries. In these and countless similar situations, careful analyses by highly trained experts can play a crucial role in helping the parties decide which options are worth fighting for and which ones are worth fighting against. Problems arise, however, when different experts come to opposite conclusions, as often happens when each side hires its own experts.  To avoid this, it is often useful to develop a data mediation or joint fact-finding process, in which the experts cooperate in demystifying the complex technical information as much as possible.  Similar expert-based, fact-finding procedures can be used to help the parties assess their military, political, and/or legal to a particular conflict situation.  All of these are areas where the judgement of trained professionals can help the parties make much wiser decisions.

Procedural Complexity

Complexity muddle can also involve procedural issues. Negotiation strategies which can reliably help small numbers of people find win-win solutions to small scale problems can easily break down in situations involving large numbers of parties and issues.   Public policy conflicts are often extremely complex processes which may have hundreds or even thousands of actors taking an active role in the dispute process. These actors are likely to be organized into a  number of different interest groups, creating a multi-party conflicts which cannot be effectively approached using a simple two party conflict models.

Frequently conflicts consist of a series of interlocking conflicts in which the efforts of parties to advance their interests in unrelated areas clash in ways which create additional points of conflict (involving the most appropriate allocation of government resources, for example) or create new opportunities for cooperation (the building of a coalition which attempts to support business or environmental interests, for example.) These conflicts are likely to involve a long series of often overlapping dispute episodes addressing different aspects of the overall conflict. In some cases, these individual disputes may be negotiated or mediated. Other disputes may be addressed through legal or political processes, public demonstrations, or police or military action. Often several of these processes are pursued simultaneously or sequentially, further complicating the process.

Dealing with procedural complexity

There are two keys to dealing with procedural complexity. First and most important is not to promise to do more than can be done. It is unrealistic to expect a single effort to resolve every problem. The thing to do is to analyze the full scope of conflict, identify those conflict problems which are having the most severe adverse effects, and develop intervention designed to limit those problems. In some cases this may involve a negotiated resolution of some of the sub issues.  In other cases, it may involve efforts to limit escalation or foster better communication, or showing the parties nonviolent strategies for better advancing their interests. An intervention which is modest, realistic, and works is superior to an overly ambitious plan which fails and undermines the parties' confidence in alternative approaches.

Also likely to be useful are approaches which handle a group of related conflicts with a standard procedure.  By designing a "dispute management system," related disputes can be grouped together and handled in the same way, simplifying the process and the cost of individual dispute handling.  In addition skill building or capacity building projects which improve the ability of individual people to deal with their own conflicts can help deal with complexity from the "ground up."

Links to Related Problems

Lack of Clear Goals

Failing to Identify All of the Issues in a Conflict

Inadequate Information Gathering


Links to Related Treatments

Strategic Option Identification and Costing

Assisted Scoping

Joint Fact-Finding
Credibility Demonstrations
Impact-Study Requirement
Dealing With Uncertainty
Technical Primers

Dispute System Design

Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu