Can conflict be good for innovation?

workplaceconflictDespite tremendous attempts to build harmonious and engaging workplace cultures, it seems inevitable that there will exist a degree of conflict in any work environment.

After all, employees will have different goals and find themselves at cross purposes with their colleagues, and that’s even before the inevitable clashes of personalities and values that are sure to emerge in any workplace.

It’s tempting therefore to try and downplay conflict as much as possible, but a recent study suggests that if it can be harnessed, it can actually be great for enhancing innovation.

Holding a mirror up to ourselves

The paper reveals that key to conflict proving successful was the ability for employees to accurately see themselves as others do.  The authors suggest that most of us want to have friendly relationships with our peers at work, and therefore seek to overcome any potential barriers to achieving that.

This is especially important as we often derive our self-image from our relationship with those around us.  When this is out of synch, it can often prompt us to take creative steps to restore balance.

How conflict can help

The study placed participants in a situation where they recalled both a harmonious and conflictual relationship from their professional past.  Each person had to describe as best they could their feelings during these situations and how they’d tried to overcome the conflict.

After that, each person was required to complete a simple creativity test, known as the Remote Associates Test.  This is a measure of our ability to associate between typically unrelated words.  The aim was to see how the mindset invoked previously effected their creativity.

Conflict equals creativity

Interestingly, it emerged that those who had experienced conflict also scored very well on the creativity test.  The theory is that the conflict had got them into a creative mindset.

The authors found that this also applied to people that were more independent (ie they didn’t view themselves via their relationships with others).  For these folks though, the conflict needed to be process orientated rather than relationship orientated.

All of which suggests that attempts to remove conflict from the workplace may actually damage your attempts to foster a creative and innovative workforce.

Suffice to say, the authors aren’t advocating the creation of a purposefully terse environment, but they do advocate the creation of an environment whereby employees are aware of the differences between themselves and their colleagues.


34 thoughts on “Can conflict be good for innovation?

  1. I think it can, but it's a shame that so many organisations (and managers) seem to do all that they can to squash any kind of discord. It just creates a whole arse licking type environment that isn't conducive to anything, let alone innovation. You have to be comfortable enough to say "I think that's wrong" for any kind of innovation to happen.

  2. I wonder about this now and then. There's so much at the moment around creating great 'cultures', but there's a strong sense that alot of them are simply out to create cults where uniformity pervades every pore of the company. I'd rather work somewhere where you can comfortably say something is shit (if it is) than somewhere where you have to say how bloody wonderful everything is all the time.

  3. could you site your sources? I would love to read the original study. Thanks for posting this it’s very interesting!

  4. Group Think is a real danger, when everyone tends to agree, or make it seem that way at least. I believe conflict is necessary to shape some kind of innovation, but there are various kinds of conflict: based on role, on hierarchy, on opinions or simply based on people involved. In the last case, when the conflict is between two people and for personal reasons, it tends to stifle the innovation process, unless these two people can go above and beyond and be mature about the organizational needs at play. But if IT and Marketing, or HR and Legal don't see eye to eye on a specific matter, that's usually good as it forces all parties involve to see a problem or situation from every angle. That can only be a good thing, I think.

  5. You tend to be branded as a 'trouble maker' if you don't agree with everything people say, especially if those people are powerful people. Doesn't tend to be great for innovation imo.

  6. Sounds like 'Don't get mad, get creative' ;0) I agree that managed conflict can be good; if you consider that when you do get upset your blood flow increases, then naturally your brain will also be re-energised and you'll move from contemplation to action. Now I need to get mad enough to write pithy effective website content…

  7. I don't think conflicts due to misaligned goals are to be desired in any circumstances. A common purpose and common goals are key, and we should never deliberately encourage conflict through conflicting goals within the organisation.

    Understanding the motivation for a conflict is key. People driven by personal goals over the goal of the team, and the potential conflicts arising from this, need help in adjusting their attitude. Conflicts between by eager and passionate people with a common goal is an entirely different situation. A toxic culture and a creative culture will both have its conflicts. Conflict is not inherently good or bad, it's contextual.

    A good team has diversity. Different types of people, with complementing mindsets and skills deliver better results. This also means difference of opinion. If empathy, trust and respect is strong, this will not lead to conflict, but dialogue and learning. Conflict as a driver for individual creativity is measurable. Fine – but in what service is that creativity potentially put to use? Trying to figure out ways to get to the opponent rather than working on the common goal? We need creative cooperation, not misaligned frustrated creative people competing with each other.

  8. Conflict is not the right word… Debate is more appropriate. The diversity of ideas and the communication are the tools that lead on to innovation!

  9. Conflict about execution of a shared vision – harnessed can be powerful. Conflict on the vision itself – can be less so. Though I'm sure the conflict may have the same individual benefits – the business realities might look vastly different. I wonder as well about a firms maturity curve – i.e. growing – or harvesting – is conflict perceived differently?

  10. I don't know if conflict is the right word. I do think there needs to be an atmosphere that allows for intellectual disagreement and debate. This is intellectual conflict, but not necessarily personal conflict. I think the secret is being somewhere safe from personal conflict, but where intellectual conflict is desired.

  11. "Innovation" is overused as a term, in my opinion. Adding a new widget to your I-something-or-other every 6 months, or a new curve to a tail light on a car every year is incrementalism, not innovation, and is sales and profit driven. True innovation will always inspire conflict, as it must by nature challenge a method, process, or idea of the way things work, or have been done previously.

  12. We should be able to differentiate conflict from and argument which can lead to a anger situation , conflict of interest should be reason out by mature minds, thinkers.

  13. Hmmm, the diversity of ideas upon which innovation depends is likely to create conflict as personnel advocate their ideas over those of others. This should not be discouraged,but managed. In fact, conflict is essential for innovation because it increases the number of ideas available for potential innovation. It leads to discussion into issues that must be resolved for people to work together and innovate.

    Tips :Don't avoid conflict…manage it and make constructive 🙂

  14. IMHO, I think it is best if one starts the discussion on the basis that it is fine to agree to disagree. I don't think it is a conducive discussion if one only want it done their way. Brainstorming (questioning and asking what ifs) helps to better the original idea/plan and might just reap in better results.

  15. New ideas should be strong resonators with your customers. I think "innovation" is similar to the marmite (veggimite) principle in design where you either strongly like or dislike instead of designed by committee where it's a pale reflection and doesn't resonate with everyone. I'll also respect marmite designs – even if I dislike them due to their strength.

  16. You can't solve any problem with conflict so i say "conflict is not good for innovation." However, starting controversy is the best route to get the people talking. When you get the people talking, all the problems, issues and ideas gets brought to the table. And thats how you solve problems and bring change without conflicts. As far as Innovation goes, you need problems/world's pain around you to solve for people not conflicts.

  17. It depends on the type of conflict is how we would see the scope of any innovation be it personal or group, everything always depends on the degree of conflict that is generated or created in the moment.

  18. Conflict (passionate debate) is not only good for the creative process, it is promoted in all of our brainstorming and concept development sessions. Each of the R&D engineers will express his or her ideas, and then support them in debate, as the others try and shoot holes in it. The entire interaction is intended to weed out the week and unsupported ideas and allow only the fully vetted ideas to be considered. Without question, it will get "passionate", but we have found this process to be healthy and self improving. Session to session, everyone knows if they present and idea, it needs to be adequately support or it will not stand a chance of being considered.

  19. This can be healthy for the organisation if conducted at a level of maturity. Participants should be encouraged not to take things too personal.

  20. To date, conflict has developed character taught guile and patience. True intelligence and conflict resolution is similar to necessity and invention! One begets the other and does so by fine degree.

  21. Philosophers down the centuries have explained the significance of conflict resolution. Sociology and psychology embrace the need to deal with it at all stages. The resolution of conflict and the new height in relationship that it can bring remains the cornerstone of human development specially in our truly conflict-ridden and rapidly changing world. Well said, Adi, for acknowledgement of conflict as the first step to its creative resolution. Cheers!

  22. I think it depends on how flexibly one might view conflict. Conflict can be objective or subjective; the difference is in the outcome. Sometimes different and even opposing ideas need to be introduced, tested, and evaluated to show that an idea is the best. People that are for generating sound solutions are comfortable with constructive conflict.

  23. "The theory is that the conflict had got them into a creative mindset."

    Can't judge because I haven't seen the research. Could be so. Right now my gut says it could well be that creative people can be prone to conflict exactly because of a different way of thinking and operating. Creativity is a driver for success – a major source of conflict. Nothing breeds contempt quicker than a worker that surpasses his or her colleagues by demonstrating greater creative aptitudes. This can be very evident where a creative person demonstrates much better skills in an area that is currently occupied by a lesser skilled colleague. The average office dullard lacks drive and intellectual skill and instead uses opportunities to pull the creative people down (backstabbing, gossiping, blocking initiatives etc.) – rather than working on becoming creative or assisting the creative in ensuring that goals are reached smoothly and quickly.

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