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6 lessons for converting adversaries into allies

What the pursuit of seafood sustainability taught this NGO executive about redefining conflicts and fostering collaboration.

Ecosystems and the industries they feed: In the long term, can they coexist, let alone thrive together?

We were sure the answer was "yes" when we conceived the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) — if we could convert adversaries into allies motivated by collaboration rather than contention.

As it turned out, we were right. Our path to that discovery is a story of antipathies disarmed and of practical lessons that, I think, can mitigate conflict in almost any circumstances.

First, a little background. Ten years ago, ISSF was an unlikely new coalition: a few leading tuna-industry companies; one NGO; the World Wildlife Fund; and one fisheries management scientist. (Full disclosure: Before the formation of ISSF, I was an executive with Del Monte Foods, once the parent company of StarKist, one of the original eight founding seafood companies of ISSF.)

To be honest, we got off to a bumpy start. We all cared about the future of tuna populations. Beyond that, our priorities, cultures and approaches diverged. Conflicting goals, seemingly irreconcilable world views and more than a little mutual distrust bubbled to the surface. We realized our journey might be a long one.

Our industry partners, for example, were as concerned as any of us about the issues. But experience had turned them defensive. Some had seen their independent sustainability efforts dismissed as "greenwashing." Others had faced demands unsupported by scientific evidence.

Various NGOs urged the industry to "do more," although "more" wasn’t always clearly defined. For some, the industry was part of the solution; others saw it as the problem itself. Some called for science-based management. Some advanced all-or-nothing strategies with little or no grounding in scientific evidence.

Meanwhile, without taking sides, scientists rolled out research showing that the health of the tuna stocks and their ecosystem would depend on some form of better tuna management, and on strengthened management of fishing methods.

Now, fast-forward to 2019. How’s it working out?

Well, from a buy-in standpoint, our growth has been dramatic. ISSF’s industry participation has risen from eight companies in 2009 to 25 today. Those companies comprise most of the global processed-tuna market. Our Environmental Stakeholder Committee includes seven members, representing a cross-section of the world’s environmental NGOs. Eleven of the planet’s foremost authorities on tuna fisheries and related ecosystems serve on our Scientific Advisory Committee.

And, yes, in a notable shift from contention to collaboration, today we see industry, NGOs and scientists working in harmony, sparking change at a scale unimaginable 10 years ago. The industry has embraced science-based innovations that reduce the risk for businesses and ecosystems alike.

So, because I believe our model is bigger than our niche, I’d like to share a few of the things we learned.

Lesson 1: A single voice is only so loud

You need to build a chorus, even if it involves some uncomfortable choir practice.

In our case, companies had to practice biting the bullet and acknowledging problems, talking about them and then implementing solutions. Our environmental-community partners had to realign their attitudes about working with industry while mustering the patience to accept a stepwise, science-based approach to continuous improvement. And our scientists often had to pivot unexpectedly in response to conditions in the field.

Here’s just one of our many "pivot" stories. ISSF industry partners often provide opportunities for marine scientists to spend weeks on fishing vessels, looking for specific solutions to specific problems. One project involved finding ways to save sharks unintentionally caught up in tuna-fishing gear. The researchers had to broaden their focus when they discovered an urgent and unsuspected problem: Sharks weren’t just being corralled in fishing nets. They were being fatally entangled even when fishing vessels weren’t nearby. After recognizing a situation that was worse than expected, researchers and fishers showed resolve and flexibility in taking action to fix it.

Lesson 2: Don’t start with the calculus; look for the common denominator

Stop thinking about your differences. Instead, zero in on a shared objective. In the early years, for example, we sometimes found ourselves distracted by human tendencies to justify actions or take credit for accomplishments. Gradually, we learned to focus on uncovering issues, addressing them and collaborating. The real objective wasn’t keeping score. It was keeping tuna stocks and ecosystems healthy.

Lesson 3: Your relationships probably need less passion, not more

When you’re trying to find common ground, beware: passion breeds more passion. Stop breeding.

Start with issues you all dispassionately can believe in. Here, ISSF had an advantage from the get-go: We’re a science-based organization. And science, properly understood, tends to tamp down unproductive emotions.

If you believe firmly in your goals, and your goals are evidence-based, partnering with antagonists is a reliable path to success.
So, when the talk turned to thorny topics that would directly affect business decisions or competition for funding, the calm voice of science tended to steer us back to our core values. Your takeaway: If emotions threaten to boil over, turn to the calmest person in the room.

Lesson 4: Want to be taken seriously? Show how serious you are

There comes a point in any relationship when one of you has to take that risky first step. Just assume you’re that someone.

In our story, the tuna companies took the initiative: They opened up their books to independent auditors. By publishing audit protocols, company-specific audit results and steps taken to fix any issues uncovered in an audit, they proved they were doing what they’d committed to do.

The stakes were high: Non-conformance to accepted conservation measures could trigger sanctions, including expulsion from the organization. But it became clear that the industry was operating in good faith.

Lesson 5: Credibility is the currency of influence

Trust builds credibility. The more credibility you have, the more influence you have. And the greater your influence, the more you can get done. Here’s one way this dynamic paid off for us:

Think of the vehicle identification number, or VIN, on that little tag on your dashboard. It was there before you owned the car. It’s the same no matter where you drive. It’ll be there after you trade that car in. A lot of boats carry permanent ID numbers, too. But somehow no tuna management body had required it for fishing vessels. That meant unscrupulous operators could change names, flags or paint schemes — even move to different oceans — and no one would be the wiser. Bad for law enforcement, bad for traceability in the supply chain.

By 2010, ISSF already had built enough influence to tell the fishing world, "Want to sell your tuna? You need to get a Unique Vessel Identifier number (UVI)."

In 2011, 12 percent of all large-scale tuna vessels had UVIs. Today that figure is 90 percent. Fisheries managers can identify vessels and follow them around the world, knowing their compliance history.

Lesson 6: It doesn’t get any easier

You can accomplish a lot by starting with the common denominator (Lesson 2) and building trust and credibility (Lesson 5). But once you’ve harvested the relatively low-hanging fruit — then what? You have two options:

One, you can park and admire your accomplishments. The world, however, will pass you by. Your influence will evaporate. You’ll lose your voice. The expectations of others will be imposed on you.

Or, two, you can keep driving ahead. Yes, the math will get harder. But your credibility will grow, and you’ll continue to be part of the solution.

So let me leave you with this: Partnering with antagonists may seem counterintuitive — even impossible. But if you believe firmly in your goals, and your goals are evidence-based, it’s a reliable path to success.

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