Constructive Conflict

by Mike Shipulski

Constructive ConflictInnovation starts with different, and when you propose something that’s different from the recipe responsible for success, innovation becomes the enemy of success. And because innovation and different are always joined at the hip, the conflict between success and innovation is always part of the equation. Nothing good can come from pretending the conflict does not exist, and it’s impossible to circumvent. The only way to deal with the conflict is to push through it.

Emotional energy is the forcing function that pushes through conflict, and the only people that can generate it are the people doing the work. As a leader, your job is to create and harness this invisible power, and for that, you need mechanisms.

To start, you must map innovation to “different”. The first trick is to ask for ideas that are different. Where brainstorming asks for quantity, firmly and formally discredit it and ask for ideas that are different. And the more different, the better. Jeffrey Baumgartner has it right with his Anticonventional Thinking (ACT) methodology where he pushes even further and asks for ideas that are anti-conventional.

The intent is to create emotional energy, and to do that there’s nothing better than telling the innovation team their ideas are far too conventional. When you dismiss their best ideas because they’re not different enough, you provide clear contrast between the ideas they created and the ones you want. And this contrast creates internal conflict between their best thinking and the thinking you want. This internal conflict generates the magical emotional energy needed to push through the conflict between innovation and success. In that way, you create intrinsic conflict to overpower the extrinsic conflict.

Because innovation is powered by emotional energy, conflict is the right word. Yes, it feels too strong and connotes quarrel and combat, but it’s the right word because it captures the much needed energy and intensity around the work. Just as when “opportunity” is used in place of “problem” and the urgency, importance, and emotion of the situation wanes, emotional energy is squandered when other words are used in place of “conflict”.

And it’s also the right word when it comes to solutions. Anti-conventional ideas demand anti-conventional solutions, both of which are powered by emotional energy. In the case of solutions, though, the emotional energy around “conflict” is used to overcome intellectual inertia.

Solving problems won’t get you mind-bending solutions, but breaking conflicts will. The idea is to use mechanisms and language to move from solving problems to breaking conflicts. Solving problems is regular work done as a matter of course and regular work creates regular solutions. But with innovation, regular solutions won’t cut it. We need irregular solutions that break from the worn tracks of predictable thinking. And do to this, all convention must be stripped away and all attachments broken to see and think differently. And, to jolt people out of their comfort zone, contrast must be clearly defined and purposefully amplified.

The best method I know to break intellectual inertia is ARIZ and algorithmic method for innovative solutions built on the foundation of TRIZ. With ARIZ, a functional model of the system is created using verb-noun pairs with the constraint that no industry jargon can be used. (Jargon links the mind to traditional thinking.) Then, for clarity, the functional model is then reduced to a conflict between two system elements and defined in time and place (the conflict domain.) The conflict is then made generic to create further distance from the familiar. From there the conflict is purposefully amplified to create a situation where one of the conflicting elements must be in two states at the same time (conflicting states) – hot and cold; large and small; stiff and flexible. The conflicting states make it impossible to rely on preexisting solutions (familiar thinking.) Though this short description of ARIZ doesn’t do it justice, it does make clear ARIZ’s intention – to use conflicts to break intellectual inertia.

Innovation butts heads and creates conflict with almost everything, but it’s not destructive conflict. Innovation has the best intentions and wants only to create constructive conflict that leads to continued success. Innovation knows your tired business model is almost out of gas and desperately wants to create its replacement, but it knows your successful business model and its tried-and-true thinking are deeply rooted in the organization. And innovation knows the roots are grounded in emotion and  it’s not about pruning it’s about  emotional uprooting.

Conflict is a powerful word, but the right word. Use the ACT mechanism to ask for ideas that constructively conflict with your success and use the ARIZ mechanism to ask for solutions that constructively conflict with your best thinking.

With innovation there is always conflict. You might as well make it constructive conflict and pull your organization into the future kicking and screaming.

image credit – Kevin Thai

Follow @ixchat on twitter

Wait! Before you go.

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


Mike ShipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior. He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.

Leave a Reply