“For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.”
“Above all, disagreement is needed to stimulate the imagination. One may not need imagination to find the one right solution to a problem. But then this is of value only in mathematics. In all matters of true uncertainty such as the executive deals with—whether his sphere be political, economic, social, or military—one needs creative solutions which create a new situation. And this means that one needs imagination—a new and different way of perceiving and understanding.”
Peter F. Drucker
“To live is to war with trolls.”
Let me get the contrarian view out of the way – I believe conflict between people in business, in general, is good. I know that it is good when conflict is done well.
Conflict captures not only attention, but also captures interest. Even lurkers, uninvolved, follow along. It is here where conflict can vector out in a variety of ways. Simplistically there is an array of good vectors and an array of bad vectors. Within those vectors there are degrees of civility & incivility, vitriol & respectful discourse.
Conflict actually amplifies, and energizes, amplification. Therefore, conflict done well is dependent upon the vectors. Oh. And also in resolution – or lack of resolution. Without a resolution destination the combatants just face the challenge over & over & over. This is where conflict, used in misguided (or purposeful evil), can lead to the worst of the worst – conflict for conflict sake. Conflict with no interest in resolution. Open ended conflict. This is the worst type of conflict because it cocoons what already exists and doesn’t open up thinking to new things.
Let’s discuss attempting to have fruitful conflict. One that actually has a potential to enlighten.
I would note conflict has a silent combatant – Bias. Yeah. Everyone has personal bias. Let me highlight two ways of viewing bias.
There are mental closed portals.
“Constructivism” is a theory of learning, where the brain creates new mental models in order to handle new data and solve problems. In other words, learning is a creative act. So when you’re taking in new data, and your brain hasn’t created a new mental model to handle it yet, you are in a state of “disequilibrium”, a state of confusion. But the inverse is also true: When you’re in a state of disequilibrium, your brain is creating new models.”
While we could discuss mental models for days let me just say Ideas are like marbles in the brain. They roll around but don’t get anywhere unless little doors open to let them funnel into a room to gather. In other words, most ideas are quite capable of exploring corners in the mind – if you let them (its up to you to open the little doors). Bias are the closed doors. I always hesitate to call the mind a maze because I actually think its more like a house with hallways, doors, rooms, closets and, yes, even bathrooms.
Recognizing the mental closed portals leads to attempts to master the art of ‘self idea management.’ In the context of conflict <wherein the ideas in your head are being discussed externally> I would suggest people will bring up 2 thoughts: psychological safety & criticism
- Psychological safety
I’m a firm believer in psychological safety (i’ve always called it ‘being dauntless in business”) but the true power in business is harnessing the potential within unique individuals toward a common vision/goal/purpose. that’s collaboration & it isn’t. its uneven managed.
i would agree that psychological safety increases the likelihood, but, would not automatically enable. it takes a confluence of factors to maximize potential of which psychological safety is a key component. it is what i would consider a structural factor.
i’m not a psychologist, just a business person. i sometimes believe we approach this from the wrong direction. we treat collaboration as some synergistic well aligned blob of progress. reality is collaboration is conflict done well. conflicting ideas sparking ideas/doing.
I have a love/hate relationship with the topic of criticism as associated with positive conflict. Its hard to imagine ideas being debated, the thinking & the actual doing part, without the idea sustaining soe criticism. Yet. I, personally, have never associated criticism with idea debates. To me debates are debates and criticism is criticism. Regardless. conflict, well done, will incorporate some criticism at some point and we shouldn’t associate ‘negative’ with ‘criticism.’ No criticism allows us to float on the superficial surface and ideas need to explore depths. Will criticism always be done well? No, of course not. So we should eliminate it so everyone doesn’t have to suffer through shitty criticism? No, of course not. Look. If you accept the concept of positive conflict you have to accept that criticism is a tool within the environment. Period.
And then there are societal/cultural closed portals.
What do I mean? I think I read somewhere that less than 10% of all counties in the USA are actual “battleground” counties in an election. What that means is about 90+% of counties in the USA contain a general group of likeminded people. This becomes important because one-on-one enlightened conflict is a duel of ideas & thinking. However, if one of the ones is surrounded by a tribe who is countering any new thought with existing thought/bias enlightenment faces a multidimensional maze of hallways with stubborn warped doors serving as obstacles to attain an objective of “thinking in a new way.” Residence can define ideas & ideals. What I mean by that is the greater intangible idea, & ideal, gets defined more by a where the physically live & who surrounds them at the corner of the bar, the church, the barbeque & the school board meeting. That is a societal closed portal.
I will say that most people who discuss conflict done well approach it incorrectly. They have an idea, usually based or grounded in an insight, and then believe if they can articulate the insight wekll that the idea will win the day. Nope. Not gonna work. The insight might get you in the game but conflict done well needs some traction, some believability, some actionable proof.
On that last thought I saw a great article from Abby Margolis at Claro about insights .
Many years of innovation work have shown me that insights are not enough. In fact, they are fairly worthless on their own. Insights have little intrinsic value without being transformed into frameworks and narratives that can drive strategic action.
The best part is when you realize the value is not in the insight itself but what can be done with it. A good insight can inspire unique frameworks, narratives, and actions appropriate for very different challenges and opportunities.
This leads me back to conflict, if you agree ideas are the desired outcome, then, unfortunately, there is a ‘middle man’ in this transaction – the insight. The enabler of the eventual outcome is some insight and, unfortunately, insights are not all created equal and that’s why ideas need some aspect of real ‘doing’ or action for people to get onboard. In other words, ideas don’t sell themselves, only ideas-to-action sell themselves.
Regardless. I think this whole topic is important. Important because as individuals become more isolated, and business, society & politics seem intent on encouraging isolation <us versus them narratives>, we need to become more intentional with regard to admitting there is conflict AND addressing that conflict in an enlightened way.
This doesn’t mean being a jerk nor does it mean scaring the shit out of people into accepting your idea <this would be the balance between psychological safety and criticism management>. Ideas get honed thru conflict. Conversely, ideas borne of no conflict are, well, not really ideas, they are simply thoughts doomed to deflate in the reality of action. The world needs ideas and needs conflict well done.