Why Innovators Should Embrace Conflict

Jan 24, 2019

Conflict isn’t inherently negative
The issue of conflict in organizations is one that is often misunderstood. It is probably fair to say that most organizations try to avoid conflict, but does conflict always lead to negative outcomes? When managed properly, conflict can be a positive, especially regarding innovation.

Many of today’s organizations face real innovation challenges: How to do more with less, how to fight off the challenge of commoditization from low-cost competitors, how to cope with full product lifecycles that resemble the product development cycles of old. Managers sometimes try to address these challenges by making their organizational culture as “creative” as possible. However, many equate creativity with a harmonious, funky culture, full of bean bags and foosball tables.

Organizations that have been successfully innovative over time, like Intel, IDEO, and Disney Pixar, know that creativity does not flow from an absence of conflict, but rather from having the right amount of the right type of conflict. They understand that the relationship between conflict and performance (especially in the innovation space) is curvilinear, as depicted in the following diagram:

What is the right type of conflict?
When teams fight about an idea, not a person, they tend to produce better, more robust outcomes. When faced with an idea you don’t like, you can say something like, “John, I usually like your ideas and admire how creative you can be in addressing our issues, however I am really struggling to understand this new idea of yours, what might I be missing?”

Another key to generating constructive conflict is to ensure that the people in your meetings do not become “ego-identified” with their proposals, which leads them to personalize any challenge and react in a defensive manner to any questions, however well intentioned. Even the simplest of changes can make a difference. Instead of having John stand at the head of the room to present his proposal (usually in front of a screen full of PowerPoint), which will cause him to associate himself with the idea and defend it as if his life depended on it, have him sit with the group and engage in a participative discussion. Having team members argue their case in a robust and healthy dialogue is productive, but allowing people to become defensive risks creating an escalation of commitment situation.

Conflict that becomes nasty and personal is never productive and often leaves a legacy of bad feelings that will negatively impact a team for a considerable period. So, how do you know how much conflict is enough? Well, this is part of the art of leadership. You will have to gauge this for your team through experience. Push them a little and see how they react. Chances are, you can push quite a bit before you get to the tipping point where conflict becomes dysfunctional and counterproductive.

Learn more about conflict and innovation at these AMA seminars:
Conflict Management Workshop 

Developing Team Creativity and Initiative