Managing Conflict Through Innovation

From time to time, I hear an intriguing complaint when I talk to executives and business owners. They tell me how much they are working to get their people “on the same page” and “getting along” as they work to develop new projects or improve current offerings. These executives complain that, even though their employees all work for the same company, it doesn’t feel like they’re part of one team. Simply put: their people fight, especially when developing new initiatives. When pressed for specifics, most offer the same statement, “if I could just get them to stop arguing, we could get more done.”

I typically offer the same piece of advice: maybe they should fight more.

If you can’t get your people on the same page, maybe that’s a good thing.

These executives’ complaints stem from a faulty belief about creative teams and how to drive innovation. Mainly, that the most creative teams suspend judgment and eliminate conflict. We’re told that to generate great ideas and to be the most productive, teams shouldn’t have conflict. So we spend thousands of dollars and countless hours on team-building exercises, taking personality tests or engaging the flavor-of-the-week training program that will end the fighting and finish the project.

A growing body of research, however, suggests that this might not be the right approach. More recent evidence suggests that conflict is good and that it drives teams to improve the overall quality of their end result. When everyone always agrees, when they’re always “on the same page,” it can be because no one else can offer a better idea or because those with better ideas are keeping them quiet in the service of cohesiveness. In one study, researchers compared teams of individuals brainstorming solutions to a traffic problem.

In one group, they instructed the teams not to judge ideas, focus on getting along and creating ideas. In another, they suggested that conflict might produce better ideas and encouraged dissent in discussion. When researchers calculated the results, they found that teams who fought over their ideas came up with more potential solutions and those solutions were generally a higher quality.

To be sure, fighting for fighting’s sake is just as ineffective as suspending judgment for the sake of getting along. While debate may push teams to higher performance, it’s important that the debate remain focused on the task or the merits or the merits of an idea and not an individual. Achieving this focus on debate over ideas is difficult, but the evidence suggests that it is more than worth the effort. These fights will need a moderator, someone to guide the dissent along the path of intellectual conflict and not personal bickering. This is usually my follow-up suggestion to those frustrated executives/owners I counsel.

Perhaps all their debates need are a good moderator. If your team is stalled out and not performing, perhaps you should get them to fight more, with you serving as referee.