Innovators must embrace conflict, not avoid it

How do you change someone’s mind if you think you are right and they are wrong?

Ah yes, a situation us innovators find ourselves in all the time. Yesterday I tweeted a link to an article on Mind Hacks about the best way to win an argument. Basically, it comes down to explaining yourself:

Research published last year on this illusion of understanding shows how the effect might be used to convince others they are wrong. The research team, led by Philip Fernbach, of the University of Colorado, reasoned that the phenomenon might hold as much for political understanding as for things like how toilets work. Perhaps, they figured, people who have strong political opinions would be more open to other viewpoints, if asked to explain exactly how they thought the policy they were advocating would bring about the effects they claimed it would.

Recruiting a sample of Americans via the internet, they polled participants on a set of contentious US policy issues, such as imposing sanctions on Iran, healthcare and approaches to carbon emissions. One group was asked to give their opinion and then provide reasons for why they held that view. This group got the opportunity to put their side of the issue, in the same way anyone in an argument or debate has a chance to argue their case.

Those in the second group did something subtly different. Rather that provide reasons, they were asked to explain how the policy they were advocating would work. They were asked to trace, step by step, from start to finish, the causal path from the policy to the effects it was supposed to have.

The results were clear. People who provided reasons remained as convinced of their positions as they had been before the experiment. Those who were asked to provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues. People who had previously been strongly for or against carbon emissions trading, for example, tended to became more moderate – ranking themselves as less certain in their support or opposition to the policy.

This didn’t surprise me, and I don’t think you are surprised either. For giving reasons why you are advocating something is more persuasive than simply stating it. But most people don’t explain themselves because it usually leads to uncomfortable conversations, and most people want to avoid conflict. This is an innovation inhibitor that stems from lack of trust within a team, organization or business.

In response to my tweet that linked to the article, my buddy Steve Koss tweeted the following:

To which I responded: lack of motivation to be a contributor than simply a bench-warmer. It takes effort to understand something, many don’t put in the work. I have friends who read news through Facebook, they believe they know what’s going on because they read it there but you and I know that reading isn’t the same as understanding. It’s like skimming through headlines without asking yourself questions and reflecting on it. Also, human nature is always there. People are insecure, conflict avoidance is always at a premium; unfortunately.

Put simply, people very seldom develop their own point of view and are scared to put it forward.

My buddy Steve Koss responded:

What does all of the above have to do with innovation? Unless something dramatic happens in the world, when it comes having a constructive discussions around complex topics, social media has made critical thinking mostly irrelevant.

Avoiding conflict by not engaging in constructive discussions that are held on social networks creates a culture of more of the same; it also happens within organizations. Many eloquent pundits throw the words disruption and innovation around like they have some of it in themselves, but the challenge isn’t getting people to think differently, it’s to get them to act differently.

This is a major obstacle for meaningful collaboration because it is in these crucial conversations where we really challenge ourselves and others to look beyond the obvious and push the boundaries of what we believe could be done.

Again, my buddy Steve Koss provides a clue:

It’s not about You, it’s about others

For those of us who are constantly trying to make progress with our ideas, a key lessons is we have to learn to deal with conflict. No brainer, right?

In the past, turning arguments into constructive decision making was a challenge I had to face head on because my nature is to be provocative and aggressive in getting what I want, I don’t mind conflict. Rather, I want constructive conflict because I want to get the best possible outcome. But my approach didn’t go well with people who aren’t used to dealing with passionate people like me. At the time I thought people should be smarter about dealing with me.

Of course, I was wrong.

So, feeling that I needed to shift my perspective on how to best communicate with people in high stakes situations, or simply when one has to have one of those conversations with colleagues, I searched Amazon for some books about communication. After browsing through books and reading some raving reviews, I picked up and read Crucial Conversations. The book opened my eyes, and is one of those books that I keep really close to me.

The stuff that I learned in the book wasn’t that surprising to me because I’ve always had people around me who are great communicators. I’ve taken cues from my Father, a publicist friend and others, so when I was reading the book it was as if I was revisiting situations they were in where I thought “how do you know what to say in that situation?”.

Bottom line: No matter how confident and passionate we may be, innovation is a team sport and requires that we have crucial conversations with people throughout the process. Human nature is always going to be a factor. As innovators we can’t avoid conflict, and we should learn from companies like Pixar where constructive debate is necessary to arrive at the best story possible.

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  • Kevin McFarthing

    Hi Jorge, very good article. In my previous company, the culture is characterised by argument and conflict, but usually focused on the issue, rarely on the person. This is where some people fall down, they can’t distinguish between the two – particularly if on the receiving end. Conflict-free areas also don’t get the best out of passionate people.

    People should argue and passionately persuade others to their pov, but once a decision has been made that’s it, the focus should be on implementation. Continuing the conflict is unacceptable, it diverts time and resource, and wastes energy.


    • Hi Kevin,

      Great point! When we think about argument and conflict we immediately think it’s about getting attacked and defending yourself. Rarely is the expectation set beforehand. It’s a matter of culture, as you know.

      What steps did your company take to make constructive conflict the norm? How do train new recruits to understand the difference between focusing on the issue and not the person?



      • Kevin McFarthing

        Hi Jorge – the new culture came in after a merger, and the tone was set very much at the top, by the exec committee and other senior managers. The expected values were communicated and most people got on with it. Some didn’t like it and voted with their feet. So the new culture came about by communication but mostly by example.


        • Hi Kevin, interesting that it happened after a merger. I’ve been in situations where there was a merger and everything kept imploding after that. I think this is the case for most.



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