The Five Steps of Fixing


I fix things in the international arena. 

My clients are organizations, government agencies, and political actors who are in a bind with someone or something, and can't seem to fix the problem. I am usually engaged at that time to help broker a deal and fix the problem. 

These are the five steps that I live by when I am engaged to fix something:

Step 1 - Restore a bridge of trust.

Disputes on the international stage can have dire consequences. When a relationship breaks down, people can die. Thus, the first rule of fixing is to have and maintain an impeccable reputation that you are trustworthy. It is that reputation which may be the only bridge between two parties that have almost no trust in anyone on the other side. 

Reputation alone can open the door to some initial dialogue. 

Being trustworthy means keeping confidences. A good fixer must keep a secret forever. There should be as little as possible (or nothing) in writing or kept electronically. Sometimes parties cannot be public that they are talking. "Thief-in-the-night" discussions are essential, and the fixer is the thief-in-the-night. Don't get caught!

Step 1 governs all the other rules. If trust is ever lost in the process, the fixer should immediately cease work and go home. Maintaining a trustworthy reputation is more important that fixing any one given dispute. If trust is ever lost, the fixer doesn't have any more value. Go home.

Rule 2 - Design an Honest Process.

Once you have a bridge of trust, the fixer's job is to build on that trust. This means coming up with an Honest Process for talking about the problem. The Honest Process comprises the baby steps that get everyone through The Big Leap (Step 5). 

Dialogue should be part of the Honest Process, but it might be a few stages in. The parties may need some initial trust building to get to a point where they can actually engage in dialogue.

The fixer should have some small "trust building measures" that are used to get people to see that others are interested in dialogue. There is no such thing as a trust building measure that is too small. 

The Honest Process should introduce the concept of The Fix (Step 4) and The Big Leap (Step 5). When you get to The Big Leap, you can look at all parties and remind them that everyone has been keeping all their promises through the Honest Process. That keeps everyone's fear in check. Fear is the chief obstacle to fixing. Want to solve international disputes? Learn to conquer fear. In yourself and in others.

Step 3 - Move from fantasy to reality.

Part of the Honest Process must include a reminder that you are a fixer, not a Miracle Worker or a Genie.

When you're working with the parties, you have to move them from their glorified, almost certainly unrealistic ideal outcome of how the problem should be solved, to some solution which many only be mildly acceptable (or perhaps barely acceptable) to them. 

As a fixer, you have every side's trust, and by this step they're participating in the Honest Process. As part of the Honest Process, you have to be honest with them. No one is going  to get their ideal outcome, probably not even close. In fact, part of why they're in a mess is because they're clinging to some fantasy that doesn't exist. If they're not prepared to have their fantasies exposed and to accept they're not going to get their fantasy, then they should go look for their Genie or Miracle Worker (hint: Genies and Miracle Workers don't exist). 

Poke holes in each side's fantasies. Rip their magical worlds to shreds. Ground them in the pain of reality. Tell it like it is, and tell each side you're doing that for everyone. They will kick and scream and complain about how unfair it is to compromise. Remind the parties that this process is not about fairness. It is about fixing.

Step 4 - Define The Fix.

The Honest Process will help everyone trust each other just enough to get people talking to each other. As people start to talk to each other, as other trust building steps are taken, as you've moved the parties from their fantasies to more grounded realities, now it's time to define The Fix.

The Fix is a solution to the problem. The art of being a fixer is working with all sides to get to a solution that all sides feel they've contributed to, and which they are willing to swallow and live with. 

The Fix might be something that was proposed early on, but was not initially acceptable (perhaps because of too many fantasies). Or the Fix could be a solution that you come up with as a fixer and each side warms up to. It is always a little different than you expect. A good fixer lets the parties take responsibility for the origination of The Fix (even if that's not really true). This is because when people feel they have ownership over something, they are more likely to want to work with it.

Once you have The Fix, you have to help the parties with the last step: The Big Leap.

Step 5 - Take The Big Leap.

In domestic courts, when you make a deal, you can draft a binding contract and then the Court will enforce it. This is a rare luxury in a cross-boundary problem, particularly if the problem is one calling for discretion (in that case, forget any public enforcement). Usually the thing that will hold The Fix together is The Big Leap.

The Big Leap is the culmination of all the hard work that's gone through the Honest Process. It's the part where you have to convince the parties that they've been able to trust each other enough through the Honest Process to commit to The Fix. Now they have to take The Big Leap and implement The Fix without any real enforcement mechanism: just the trust that one side will uphold the benefit of the bargain for the other side. 

I call it The Big Leap because it always feels like one. You're dealing with parties that have distrusted each other for years, decades, centuries. There is fear that The Fix is a ruse or will not be honored by the other side. That is a admittedly a risk. So you have to be able to calm those fears. Maybe you have to bake in some final runway in the Honest Process to get people to take The Big Leap. It is a moment of faith for everyone. 

If the parties can take the Big Leap, they'll be jumping into a new world where things are going to be a little different. They'll be in a world where they may have a little more trust between themselves. That will make future problems less onerous. Maybe it will lead to greater dialogue. Maybe not. That's on them to figure out. But be proud if you made it this far. Welcome to the world of fixing.