Embracing Creative Abrasion At Your Conflict-Averse Company
Paul Genberg is the Head of Product at Studio X, an innovation studio that launches products for the future of exploration.
Want to disrupt your industry with the biggest, boldest, best ideas? Creative abrasion is how you get there. Creative abrasion is the intellectual friction that hones ideas into their most-perfect versions through vigorous debate of diverse perspectives. The problem is, many organizations are steadfastly conflict-averse.
In the name of company culture, organizational hierarchy, or simply keeping the peace, many organizations eschew any sort of conflict. They don’t realize that conflict can actually be constructive, especially when in pursuit of innovation.
If that sounds familiar, and you find your organization treading the waters of mediocrity without ever really pushing the envelope, read on to discover how to get your conflict-averse organization to embrace creative abrasion — while still keeping the peace.
Conflict Aversion Is Growth Aversion
In conflict-averse organizations, managers tend to hire people just like them, creating an echo chamber. The team “yesses” itself into an oblivion of surface-level solutions that aren’t deep enough to solve problems in the marketplace in truly ingenious ways. Like a muscle, without friction, there is no growth.
This is a recipe for professional death, especially for startups. It’s imperative to include creative abrasion in the innovation process, because startups need to make an impact in the market quickly. They need barrier-breaking ideas, and they need them fast. Startups can’t afford to innovate incrementally, because they don’t yet have the revenue foundation to hold them up as they take their time.
Corporate teams have a bit more foundation to fall back on, but the days of turning a large ship on a small rudder are over. Corporate teams need to be able to innovate quickly so as not to be outpaced by more nimble competitors. Tough but constructive criticism can help these teams expedite their process and stay ahead of the curve.
Diversity Is Key
Creative abrasion only happens when you gather a diverse group of people together in the innovation process. The more diverse, the better.
That’s because the idea of lone genius is a myth. If an idea comes from a single person, it will be colored and framed around their biases. This makes the idea more narrow and shallow than the market, which is heavily diverse, itself. With each perspective taken into account during the innovation process, the idea becomes deeper, more powerful and more creative. Collective genius is where ideas blossom.
Whatever the composition of your team is — analysts, creatives, engineers, etc. — use them and their diverse intelligences to come up with better ideas. It’s like tapping into 30 minds instead of one to solve a problem.
Keep Creative Abrasion On The Rails With Ground Rules
Conflict is something humans are inherently wired to avoid, which makes creative abrasion difficult to pull off flawlessly, especially at first. The trick is to approach creative abrasion in a way that’s productive without being destructive.
To introduce creative abrasion to your company, first, set ground rules that create the psychological space your team needs to feel safe to express their ideas and respectfully challenge the ideas of others.
1. Titles don’t matter. Inform your team ahead of time that in an innovation session, everyone is on the same level. Titles don’t matter for the duration of the meeting. The janitor’s ideas deserve just as much respect and attention as the lead engineer’s.
2. Debate ideas, never people. This one can be tough, as we tend to connect our egos with our work. Make sure to tell your team that no personal attacks will be tolerated and that debate must always center on making the idea better.
3. Actively listen, don’t just wait to reply. When someone is sharing an idea, don’t think about how you’re going to “one-up” them. Really listen to understand the intricacies of their idea. When you’re ready to reply, do so by first asking questions to deepen your understanding.
4. Provide language markers. Ask your team to use these phrases to move the discussion along respectfully:
• “Let me play devil’s advocate.”
• “I agree but want to push the thinking deeper here.”
• “Let me highlight where I think the idea drops off.”
Be A Moderator, Not A Contributor
If you’re leading the discussion and/or you hold a higher title than the rest of the group, it may be in everyone’s best interest for you to moderate instead of contribute.
Though the ground rule that titles don’t matter has been put into place, those biases will crop up subconsciously. Set yourself aside and use your influence to keep the discussion moving in a positive manner. Call on people who haven’t spoken so that the loudest voices in the group don’t get all the attention. If the debate gets too hot, step in to cool it down. Call out any behavior that goes against the ground rules. The moderator’s job is to keep the meeting on the rails so the best ideas come to light.
What To Do When Big Egos Won’t Play Ball
Not every personality is cut out for creative abrasion. If you have a big ego on your team who cannot abide by the rules, respect the group’s ideas, and won’t stop trying to pridefully push their ideas to the front, that person may be better off left out of innovation sessions. A single rotten apple can ruin the creative energy of an otherwise well-performing group.
Wrap It All Up With Disagree And Commit
At the end of your innovation session, it’s unlikely that everyone will agree with every choice that’s been made. Set the expectation prior to the meeting that whatever final solution arises, everyone in the group will agree to commit to it, even if they disagree with it. This directs your team to take the solution and execute it as successfully as possible.
Though it can be initially tough to get your team on board with the constructive conflict of creative abrasion, the payoff in terms of industry-disrupting innovation is more than worth the effort. Keep at it, go slow, and you may be the next company to overhaul your industry with a completely new idea.
Forbes Business Council is the foremost growth and networking organization for business owners and leaders. Do I qualify?