Why Great Leaders Seek Conflict for Creativity

How does Google solve their most intricate and difficult design challenges? Five days of unbridled, deep, thoughtful conflict.

But, it’s not conflict in traditional sense of the word. They leverage a structured, facilitated process called Design Sprint to bring their teams together to deliberate, prototype, and test solutions to some of their greatest organizational challenges. Each day of the Sprint brings a new challenge and exercise; ones that encourage everyone from the CEO to the UX designers to challenge each other’s thinking in an environment that encourages healthy and thoughtful conflict.

And it’s one of the most renowned processes for creative design solutions. It’s used by the United Nations to increase food donations, KLM Airlines to prototype efficient airport gates, and the City of Denver reimaging public art. We’ve even used the process to design our own application.

While Google’s process might not be a good fit for the strategic planning process as it’s focused on creative design for the digital space, how might we take Google’s thinking and use healthy conflict in our organization’s strategic planning process? First, it’s important to understand the difference between healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict.

What Does Unhealthy Conflict Look Like?

“Unhealthy conflict is easy to recognize because it’s personal. I had a client say to me, “This is all wrong. You got this all wrong.” Throwing failure in someone’s face, deserved or not, is the fastest way to divert a conversation.” The Role of Conflict in Design – Daniel Brown

As Daniel Brown so eloquently states, unhealthy conflict is what we think of conflict in the traditional sense. It’s usually marked by raised emotions, hurt feelings, and finger pointing on all sides of the isle.

But, unhealthy conflict also occurs when people won’t stand up for their thoughts and beliefs or bring insightful thinking to the table. It looks like everyone nodding in agreement at first and then is promptly followed by complaints later on. Being passive in these situations is just as harmful as being abrasive – it’s just another form of unhealthy conflict in the form of passive behavior.

Unhealthy conflict looks like:

  • “You aren’t listening to my ideas.”
  • “It doesn’t matter what you think, we should just [insert action].”
  • “You need to do this.”
  •  Conflict in the absence of common courtesy and manners.

What Does Healthy Conflict Look Like?

Healthy conflict is marked by genuine inquisitiveness and absent of personal attacks or heated emotion. Instead of focusing on the person or emotion, it’s focused on the issue or problem at hand.

The great Peter Drucker once said, “Manners are the lubricating oil of an organization.” And with healthy conflict, they aren’t just nice. They are mandatory. Simple common courtesy, please, and thank you goes a long way in keeping conflict in the healthy zone.

Google’s guiding principle on how to keep the sprint team focused is to keep conversations centered on asking and answering questions like:

  • “How might we [insert problem].”
  • “What do we need to do to [insert action].”
  • “I think that is a great response, but what if we thought about it this way? [insert explanation.]”

Creating a Culture of Healthy Conflict

Conflict, healthy or unhealthy, is inherently uncomfortable, at least at first. But, it’s an important tool in your leadership arsenal that needs to be leveraged to help your organization overcome its most difficult [or simple] challenges.

As you consider using heathy conflict as part of your organization’s day-to-day problem-solving process, consider these four tips:

  • Tip #1: Lead from the front and seek honest and open feedback. Forbes contributor Joseph Folkman conducted a study on leadership effectiveness and found the top 10% of effective leaders all had one trait in common–their willingness to ask and receive honest feedback. If you’re looking to create a culture that values healthy conflict, you must be willing to ask others to challenge your thinking and use their suggestions. Be the example. Plus, receiving honest feedback could make your strategic plan even more powerful.
  • Tip #2: Keep conflict healthy by encouraging assertive behavior and language. Unhealthy conflict is marked by either aggressive or passive behavior and language. Practice and encourage your team to communicate with clarity and assertiveness, provide honest and constructive feedback, and to “play above the belt.” Remind them it’s okay to stand up for their beliefs and ideas, but remind them the best ideas and beliefs are supported by facts and data – especially as you focus on creating a plan for your organization’s future.
  • Tip #3: Reward, recognize, and thank people willing to take a stand and support their position. Reward the behavior you want to see. If someone is willing to constructively question your ideas or the team’s thinking with assertive language and data, reward them for it. Want to take it a step further? Encourage your team to reward each other’s healthy conflict.

The best leaders don’t find the answers to their organization’s biggest challenges within themselves, but rather within their organizations. Healthy conflict allows your team to bring those answers to the surface with a thoughtful, collaborative approach – one that will make your plan more powerful and meaningful to your organization.

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