Constructive Conflict Drives Innovation

A Fast Company article highlighting the skills that managers will need in 2025, points to a range of soft skills that will be necessary to navigate the future workplace. Calling it “Tension-Tolerant Collaboration‘, the article highlights how the new workplace is an amalgamation of diversity, global timezones, multi cultural teams and disaggregated working locations, making it imperative that collaboration takes into consideration the tensions emerging from this changing work environment.

Counter intuitively we find that this increasing complexity in the work environment can lead Managers to try harder to maintain low-conflict, harmonious teams so that, even with all this complexity, work can proceed in an agreeable way. And thus, instead of this complexity driving change and innovation, many organisations find instead a higher propensity for silos. Teams end up building safe keeping methods against further change. The result is a slowing down of innovation which thrives on conflict and creative abrasion.

A response to this slowing down is often the introduction of Cross-Functional Teams. But if these teams are powered with a safe-keeping mindset, trying to reduce complexity and conflict, it will lead to unproductive, consensus based collaboration. Teams will agree to disagree and settle on the lowest common agreeable idea, just so that work can progress. This approach in the long run significantly reduces the ability of an organization to drive innovation outcomes.

It must be recognised that conflict is, in fact, good for innovation. It creates the necessary environment for constructive debate and discussion, helps foster creative disagreements that lead to newer ideas if managed with maturity. So if you are looking to ignite the innovation spark in your organisation, diagnose the current culture to see if:

(a) There is too much agreeability within teams OR is there a healthy appreciation of creative conflict as a catalyst?

(b) Do Managers have the skills needed to navigate their teams through such constructive conflict OR do they encourage quick fixes to keep projects moving forward?

(c) Does the Leadership role model a safekeeping mindset, or do they role model a mindset for growth and change, one that thrives on new ideas and prototype momentum? 

A diagnosis of the current practices and mindsets can be a very effective way to recognise existing roadblocks and really begin to design your organisation culture for collaboration and innovation.

Some additional reading: Kate Isaacs and Deborah Ancona explore 3 Ways to Build a Culture of Collaboration in this short, useful HBR article.