by Admin
Updated: July 24, 2020

Compromise is failure to arrive at a solution that satisfies the objectives of all parties involved

Compromise means the parties involved in some kind of negotiation or competition accept that they can’t get everything they want in order to get some of what they want. But this is accepting failure. With a little more effort it’s possible for everyone to win.

The word “compromise” comes from Latin compromittere meaning “to promise mutually” and originally (15th century) it referred to an agreement to abide by the decision of an arbiter.

Avoid arbitration

The problem isn’t with the definition of the word but the process of arbitration used to arrive at it.

Arbitration is generally required to operate in a way detached from the motivations of the involved parties and reach decisions that are seen to be “acceptable.”

It is always better to put in the extra effort to solve your problems yourself and arrive at a complete solution that satisfies everyone.

The last watermelon (analogy)

The lost watermelons (true story)

It’s the last watermelon on earth and two groups want it. An arbitrator says they have to compromise and accept half each.

The watermelon is cut in half and both groups leave the table disappointed.

If someone had bothered to ask the question, “Why do you want it?” they would have learned that one group wanted only the seeds and the other wanted only the flesh.

Everyone could have had 100% of what they wanted for the price of the effort required to ask a simple question.

This shows that the process need not be a zero-sum-game. Simply cutting the watermelon in half - a compromise - takes 100% and gives each party 50% of what they want (zero-sum) but the more informed approach uses 100% of the watermelon to generate 2 × 100% satisfaction.

Modification of objectives

The watermelon example illustrates why it is important to always have a clear understanding of the objectives in question and not just take things at face value.

In order to achieve something better than a compromise, it is necessary to investigate the core objectives in detail with a view to re-framing them so they can all be accommodated.

This often calls for diplomacy - sometimes, parties refuse to adjust their stated objectives for reasons unrelated to the negotiation itself, e.g. to appear strong.

This requires some work and a deeper understanding of the underlying rationales, but it obtains superior results.

More info

“Compromise is usually bad. It should be a last resort. If two departments or divisions have a problem they can’t solve and it comes up to you, listen to both sides and then pick one or the other. This places solid accountability on the winner to make it work.” - Robert Townsend.

“The Use of Compromise in Conflict Management” at, “There’s No Such Thing as a Compromise in Business” at and “Why You Should Never Compromise” at

Mathematicians have had a go at this problem. It is formally referred to as “fair division” and involves some tricky concepts such as subjective valuation, Pareto efficiency and game theory.

It gets quite complicated quite quickly, but a friendly introductions can be found at and (PDF, 92 kB).

The landmark paper, “An Envy-Free Cake Division Protocol” by Steven J Brams and Alan D. Taylor is available at

One of the most difficult aspects is that, at some level, fixed values need to be assigned when in reality these can change in ways that are difficult to model. For example, suppose we want to fairly divide bags of mosaic tiles and we value them for the patterns we can make with them: We can compute all possible patterns and even assign value based on taste preferences. But as humans, our tastes may evolve during the process and, although this is key to modification of objectives, it is very difficult to account for mathematically.

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