Innovation via Constructive Conflict and Generative Debate

by Janet Sernack

Innovation via Constructive Conflict and Generative Debate In a recent TED presentation, successful British multi business owner, Margaret Hefferman, talked about the need to ‘think together’. She outlined how to do this by daring to confront conflict and create disagreement.

The concept of ‘disconfirmation’, which is to challenge a belief, idea or a theory, as being ‘right’, unacceptable or ill-formulated, is one of the key practices required to create the constructive conflict and generative debate that is critical to effect change and innovation.

One of the key comfort zone points, I developed as a result of spending most of my adult life in Australia, is to ‘not to rock the boat’, or to ‘make waves’, which usually means, in real terms,  avoiding conflict.

Let’s take a moment to consider the whole subject of ‘debate’, and how it gets typically gets played out in Australia and in other western countries . In high school, debate tends to be perceived as a ‘contest’, or a ‘competition’, with ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Each team represents a point of view and elegantly puts forward their case ‘for it’ or ‘against it’, the team with the ‘best’ or most convincing case, according to the judging panel, wins! Most western governments debate their laws and policies, with each political party taking ‘sides’, often resulting in ‘win/lose’ and ‘denial/blame’ games. The language, ‘in opposition’ supports what is considered to be a very limited ‘right/wrong’ way of seeing the world, very often confirming and validating existing beliefs, ideas and theories. The consequences of this approach is resistance to change, conventional and rules bound ways of thinking and behaving, and more importantly, a lack of creativity and innovation.

In most organisations I have consulted to, in my 30 plus years of corporate experience, where ‘right/wrong’ perspectives thrive, it has now become, culturally incorrect to be challenging or argumentative in case you get judged as being ‘oppositional’. Conflict is avoided at all costs, and debates have become very polite and even tempered conversations. I have noticed that very few people seem to have the energy, confidence and the courage to really debate challenge the status quo and disconfirm existing beliefs, ideas and theories.

The problem with this approach is that it eliminates possibilities, breakthroughs, and inflection points and inhibits innovation.

It seems that many of us no longer know be appropriately assertive and challenging in our communications. This hesitation and politeness creates a range of passive and aggressive, frustrated and conventional responses to the questions that get asked.
For innovation to occur people need a collaborative process that allows them to ‘think together’: an active and disagreeable debate process that generates higher level or meta ideas and solutions, not one which seeks to make one party ‘wrong’ and the other ‘right’.

Some of the world’s most successful business people deal with threats, instability and uncertainty, by taking a position of being ‘in opposition’; to the organisation and its identity to deeply resist complacency (and constant confirmation of the status quo).

They stimulate the disruptive thinking required for experimentation and the generation of ‘out of the box’ ideas and unconventional solutions. Ideas get challenged, dismissed, deviated, reinvented, until high levels of ‘meta thinking’ and inflection points are achieved. This accelerates the creation of the ‘right hand turns’ required to effect unexpected dramatic change that affects progress, change and innovation.

Finally, generative debating has the power to be intentionally ‘disruptive’, which creates the mindset shifts and disconfirmation to generate innovative solutions and ideas to problems that may have previously seemed impossible and insolvable.

So, if you would like to get the ball rolling to include more debate into your business:
Ask more questions, especially open and exploratory ones that don’t minimise and disengage the person you are interacting with:
1. What would happen if……………? Pause and listen for their response. Keep on repeating the question until Meta thinking levels are achieved.
2. Accept very suggestion someone presents, even if you don’t agree by stating “yes……… and….” Pause and listen for their response.
3. When someone makes a suggestion, reply with “I like ……………and what if we………………..” Pause and listen for their response. Repeat first question.

You may be surprised by the possibilities and opportunities that get generated!

image credit: neoformix.com
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Generating Innovation with Constructive Conflict and Generative Debate Janet Sernack is the Founder & CEO ImagineNation. She is an ICf certified executive coach and experiential learning specialist with expertise in adaptive leadership and team effectiveness. Janet facilitates a weekly business network in Zichron Yaakov, Israel, for English speaking business owners and entrepreneurs.

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  1. In my experience, strong argument and conflict can be healthy and productive, as long as certain principles apply. First, the focus should be on the issue, not the person whose position you disagree with. A corollary to this is that people should be less personally sensitive. Second, even the most senior people should welcome disagreement and argument from strongly held arguments backed up by evidence and data as well as opinion. Finally, if the alternative course of action has merit, then it may be worth backing as an experiment along with the main option. It doesn’t have to be either/or or win/lose, particularly in the context of innovation.

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