Creative Conflict - Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes (2015)

Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes (2015)

1 Creative Conflict

Imagine a room of twenty-one successful executives working for a global luxury brand. They’re well dressed, well paid, well mannered, and well off. But that is their problem. They are so immaculate that they can’t connect. So while on the surface everything looks and sounds fine, in fact not nearly enough is going on. The silence isn’t golden; it’s suppressed conflict.

Although the luxury of the company was unusual, nothing else about this scene was. Most people—from CEOs to janitors—would rather avoid conflict than embrace it. We fear our own emotions and we fear the feelings of others even more. So we develop habits and mannerisms to ensure that the argument never emerges. Psychologists call this “covering” and what it really means is that we obscure distinctive aspects of our personality, values, and passions when we come into work. In devoting so much energy to avoidance, however, we fail to move ideas forward; we get and stay stuck. But just cultures aim specifically at ensuring that conflict and ideas come out where they can be seen, explored, and confronted safely.

Scilla Elworthy can read the signs of silent conflict instantly. Three times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, she has devoted much of her life to developing effective dialogue between people who make weapons and those who want to ensure they’re never used. The executives of luxury brands might not be her most natural constituents, but she has a lot to offer them.

“It was just a twenty-minute exercise,” she told me. “They had to work in pairs, sitting opposite each other, in a comfortable place where they wouldn’t be interrupted. The first person has to ask a nontrivial question—something like ‘tell me who you really are’ or ‘what is it you most want from life?’ For the next five minutes, their partner has to give the question their full attention, think about it with their whole body, heart, and mind, and report anything and everything they feel. Both have to maintain eye contact for the full five minutes. Listening must be inexpressive: no smile, frown, or expression should be allowed to steer the response. Then they trade places. And repeat.”

What Elworthy described was a simple but far from trivial exercise. It demanded focus, concentration, and honesty. By formalizing the exchange, the detritus that mostly obscures dialogue in daily work was removed; small talk or second-guessing couldn’t get in the way. Instead, each person had the experience—so precious in a working day—of saying what he or she truly believed and felt, and of being heard.

“We don’t call it conflict resolution but conflict transformation. Buried under the dragon’s foot is always a gem—something to be learned from conflict. And so you have to be able to name what is going on—and then to talk about it in a way that isn’t explosive.”

The experience proved so powerful that now, when the organization gets stuck, the team returns to Elworthy’s process: they stop, sit down, and reconnect. The questions can escalate: What do you love? What do you fear? What are your highest aspirations?

“The effect was so strong that it put our concerns in perspective,” one participant recalled. “We became more real with each other. Fifteen minutes of that is worth four hours of discussion.”

The purpose of a just culture is to surface all the information, intelligence, and insight required to make the best decisions. That means working in groups because, at its best, teamwork provokes the kind of constructive conflict from which better ideas emerge, honed by the clash of disciplines and the friction of divergent minds. And yet, when asked, most people will say that they are afraid of conflict and even fewer claim to like it. Leaders don’t find this easy either, with 42 percent of CEOs acknowledging that the area in which they feel least confident is conflict resolution. Yet done well, it can indeed become what Scilla Elworthy calls conflict transformation: a positive process in which everyone grows.

Difference Makes a Difference

Truly creative conflict requires a complex array of personalities, backgrounds, thinking styles, and attitudes. But there are good reasons why this often does not happen. We are all biased. Our brain achieves much of its efficiency by searching for matches. When I see something similar to past experience, I take a shortcut and trust it, assuming it’s roughly the same thing, and skip over any taxing new learning. But there’s a catch. What is most familiar to me—is me. I’m the face I see in the mirror every day and the voice I hear all day long. So my brain prefers, feels more comfortable with and confident in, people like me. That’s why, statistically, individuals overwhelmingly choose as their life partners people who are roughly the same height, weight, age, background, IQ, nationality, and ethnicity. And it’s why, as an ambitious young TV producer, when I sought to hire the best team I could find, I hired female liberal arts graduates who spoke several European languages, were under five-six and all had their birthdays in June: people just like me. Great teams need windows on the world, but biases mean that we mostly get mirrors.


This has been, of course, the rationale for several decades of diversity programs; teams do better when they consist of men and women. The most effective information networks include a broader range of people, backgrounds, expertise. And most companies seek to reflect the markets they serve. But if our biases work against us, how can we create and tolerate the diversity on which creative conflict depends?

Ted Childs knew how. I first met Childs at a diversity conference in London at the headquarters of IBM. These events were nearly always led by women, so I was surprised when an African-American man joined us. But when he started to speak, I knew why he was there.

Childs spoke of the experience of bias: its insidiousness, its invisibility, and the way that it was blind to itself and to talent that looked different. He described the battles he had waged inside IBM to implement policies that successfully attracted thousands of smart women who didn’t leave when they had children but were supported and promoted throughout any careers they wished to pursue. Childs spoke with more authority on the subject of gender equality than anyone I had ever heard. Years later I asked him why he had been able to achieve so much. Was it because he was not female?

“Absolutely,” he insisted. “Fighting for a group that is not yours is a completely different fight. When I got the diversity job at IBM, I was not going to lead with a focus on blacks. Women, the gay, and the disabled were my focus. That gave me my best shot at disarming people and getting them to believe that I am intellectually honest.”

Childs was explaining what I’d felt that night in London: the unarguable moral authority of someone not out for himself. In truly creative debate, self-interest is always a liability, but selflessness is power.

Creative Conflict Takes Practice

Too much homogeneity makes rich conflict impossible. But so, too, does fear.

There’s very little in most people’s upbringing or education that prepares them for the ambiguity and uncertainty of heated debate. But that can be learned.

“You practice for auditions, for exams, to improve your tennis game,” Brooke Deterline told me. “So why wouldn’t you practice the kinds of arguments and conflicts that are bound to come up at work?”

Deterline works with companies on what she calls courageous leadership: teaching individuals at all levels of an organization to be able, calmly and clearly, to raise the issues, concerns, and ideas that they have at work. You could say that her whole mission is the reduction of organizational silence, teaching people to identify the moments at which they want to stand up and offer an idea or counterargument.

“One of the first series of programs that we did was at Google,” Deterline told me. “Their value is ‘do no evil.’ The hard part is: how do we empower people to do good? Very few people come into work knowing how to do that or feeling that it is something they’re allowed to do. So they have to learn and to practice.”

A decade ago, aware that data privacy was bound to become an inflammatory issue, Google created a “Liberate” group that is passionate about protecting personal information. The data liberation group’s fundamental function is to stop internal teams from imagining they can hold information captive. They have a specific remit to provoke debate because that’s how the teams they work with stay honest.

Conflict in companies shows up in many guises. Sometimes it manifests as a rather polite ritual, of the kind that Elworthy found in luxury brands. Often it is contained in silence that represents a fear of stepping out of line—with good news or bad. And in many companies it hones in on trivial issues—food, parking—as a displacement for the substantial creative arguments that no one dares to initiate.

All of these conditions cry out for people with the courage, skill, and honesty to focus creative conflict on the issues that count. Books like Mary Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values, Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes, and Kerry Patterson’s Crucial Conversations all demonstrate that however much people want to be open, they experience genuine difficulty living up to that ambition. All we have is a voice—and the time it takes to learn how to use it.

One participant in Deterline’s program, Luke, had to stand his ground against a combative CEO who believed the only way to negotiate a contract was through intimidation and brute force—but this flew in the face of everything he believed in. So he worked through Deterline’s simple prescription: he spent time thinking about the conflict, consulted his peers, and practiced his approach.

“I felt real pressure to act counter to what I believed was the right course of action,” Luke recalled. “Before, I would have shifted automatically into conflict avoidance. But because we’d practiced these kinds of conflict, this time, I acted on my beliefs and secured the autonomy to run the remainder of the negotiation as I saw fit. Rather than losing sight of what I valued and giving in to pressure from the founder, I stood my ground, I met the deadline, and, working my way, I exceeded the financial goals for the project.”

Recognizing that his values were at stake was a critical first step; when you’re tired, distracted, or heavily focused on deadlines or targets, even that can be difficult. Experiments show that we often don’t even notice the moral moment, and by the time we do, it’s too late. But what Luke found was that identifying the moment at which he was tempted by silence made him stop to think about his choices. Advice, allies, and rehearsal gave him the confidence to stand his ground.

Whenever I talk to people who have resisted the urge to duck the argument, I hear the same story: “There was more give in the system than I imagined. And now I’ll do it again.” They come to see that articulating your values, beliefs, and ideas enriches work and turns what could be a sterile, soul-destroying confrontation into genuinely creative conflict. Or, as one executive recalled, “I began to see my whole professional life as an experiment, so much so that I began to welcome challenging situations—actually seeking them out—not only for my growth but for the growth of others and the overall health of my organization.”

Crucial Differences

The German philosopher Hannah Arendt defined thinking as having a conversation with yourself. But for organizations to think, that conversation has to be with colleagues: testing, stretching, challenging observations, ideas, data, interpretations. The richness of the ensuing dialogue requires information and great questions.

Information wants to be different. If everyone brings the same knowledge, then why have five people in the room when you could just have one? Unanimity is always a sign that participation isn’t wholehearted. Instead of seeking to confirm each other’s biases and beliefs, why not bring data, stories, experience that enrich and expand? Great thinking partners aren’t echo chambers—they bring well-stocked minds, new perspective, and challenge. Ask yourself: What do I have to offer that no one else can bring? That’s what you are there for.

When Herb Meyer served as special assistant to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, he was responsible for producing the US National Intelligence Estimates. But he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the data he received. As in most organizations, everything he was told just confirmed prevailing opinions: the Cold War was still going strong, the USSR was as powerful as ever. The lack of disconfirming data puzzled and unsettled Meyer. What if the prevailing wisdom were not true; what might the intelligence services expect to see?

I think Meyer’s question is one of the best I’ve ever encountered for shaking up and enriching the exploration that should lie at the heart of critical decision making. What might we see if we were wrong? Meyer compiled a list of everything that could happen if the Soviet Union were collapsing and sent it to the spy networks. This was a low-cost experiment: if they saw nothing, then prevailing wisdom ruled. But one of the first pieces of data that came in was news of a weekly meat train that had been hijacked and all the meat stolen. The army had been called out—but then the politburo told the army to back off but tell no one.

“Well, that’s not what happens when everything in the economy’s just fine, is it?” Meyer asked. “You don’t have people stealing meat and you don’t have the army letting them get away with it. So that started to tell us something. And then there was more like that.”

Meyer is widely credited with being one of the first people in the world accurately to forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union—not because he had a hunch but because he acted on it, sought disconfirmation, and had the courage and wit to ask a great question: What would we expect to see if we were wrong? He didn’t just sit on his concerns; he reached out to get the data and the allies he needed to challenge and change the conversation: conflict at its best.

Better Questions, Better Decisions

Questions are the heart and soul of constructive conflict. They open up the exploration, bring in new information, and reframe debate. When I attended London Business School, I compiled a book of questions because I realized that while the case studies dated quickly, the questions were perennial and could become habits of mind.

- Who needs to benefit from our decision? How?

- What else would we need to know to be more confident of this decision?

- Who are the people affected by this decision; who have the least power to influence it?

- How much of this decision must we make today?

- Why is this important? And what’s important about that?

- If we had infinite resources—time, money, people—what would we do? What would we do if we had none?

- What are all the reasons this is the right decision? What are all the reasons it is the wrong decision?

Rich debate and argument are critical activities in any organization because, done well, they surface fears and doubts and they reveal ideas. They help us to see what we’re prone to ignore, challenging us to think for ourselves, think better, think differently. And this is critical at every level of an organization. Donna Hamlin coaches board directors on how to ensure that the right debates are had. Her rule of thumb: ask three questions for every statement you make. That keeps the conversation open.

For critical decisions, appoint a devil’s advocate: someone whose specific task is to probe for disconfirmation, argue opposite positions, and surface data or arguments that have been trivialized, minimalized, or marginalized. No one should ever get stuck in this role—after a while, even the staunchest advocate will get tuned out. Revolving the role, however, presents a fantastic opportunity for critical, constructive conflict: an experience everyone needs to refresh his or her thinking.

The president of Pixar, Ed Catmull, vividly describes the ferocious Braintrust meetings that accompany the development of every movie. Debates are intense; arguments are heated; what makes them great at problem solving is candor. No one wastes time positioning remarks. Instead, everyone offers their best suggestions to a director who—crucially—is under no obligation to accept any of them. Some airlines put on their boards safety directors from their competitors, appreciating that peer-to-peer challenge is the best way to gain confidence on issues that count. Both are forms of collaboration in which experience, asking questions, listening, and long-term trust combine to get problems and original ideas out into the open.

Making the Most of Mistakes

Just cultures require that everyone bring their ideas, experience, attention, questions, and arguments to forge the best initiatives and systems they can. These won’t be perfect; mistakes will be made along the way. But if people are too afraid of error, they won’t be able to speak and think freely. Critical to the idea of just cultures, therefore, is the belief that as long as they are well-intentioned, mistakes are not a matter for shame but for learning.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, the orthopedic surgeon David Ring performed a carpal tunnel operation on a patient whose complaint was trigger finger. Only when writing up his notes did he realize his error and move, quickly, to correct it. But Ring wasn’t content with that. He conducted his own, in-depth investigation of how he had come to make the mistake. And then he went one step further; he published his findings in the New England Journal of Medicine and became headline news.

Since then, Ring has become an outspoken champion for patient safety and the critical importance of sharing mistakes. “If you can’t talk about mistakes,” he told me, “you learn nothing. If anything, it convinces you that you’re perfect—which is dangerous. If you can own up to mistakes, then others can, too. And that’s how you learn. It’s how whole organizations learn.”

At Torres wine vineyard, there is a big black book. It isn’t a list of disgraced former employees or disappointing suppliers. The Black Book of Torres is the book of mistakes. Whenever a mistake is made, the person who made it writes it up. One entry came from the chief financial officer, acknowledging a $200,000 error he had made in a currency hedge. But the value of the book goes beyond writing: every new recruit reads it on joining the company. So this simple book both shares the learning from the errors—so they aren’t repeated—and sends a powerful message: everyone makes mistakes. Power and status confer no infallibility; mistakes are the way stations of progress.

Every decision is a hypothesis. Given the available information, a choice was made that will or won’t deliver intended results in the future. When things turn out as we imagined, we call ourselves smart; when they don’t, we call that a mistake. But really the hypothesis was just not proved. Being able to see that as new information, rather than error, turns debate into exploration, argument into thinking. Being able easily to say “I was wrong about that” removes the pressure to be perfect.

Most organizations pay lip service to the importance of mistakes—but few people believe it’s safe to talk about them. In one recent study, of those questioned, 88 percent said they would address mistakes only in private; just 4 percent were willing to do so openly in front of others. But the correlation in medicine—between openness about errors and patient safety—is a compelling argument that openness about mistakes is what makes systems safer and smarter. How often, how easily, do you acknowledge when you were wrong? Doing so gives others permission to do likewise. Just as in aviation, highly complex procedures become robust only when everyone looks after them, takes responsibility, and cares.

Constructive conflict isn’t a fight club and neither is it a social club. At Pixar, Ed Catmull says that in the beginning, all their movies suck. The same is true for ideas, doubts, concerns: they all start off roughly hewn, imprecise, and out of place. The first glimmer of an idea or an observation is like gold dust—highly cherished but hard to spot and not immediately valuable. We come together in groups and teams to refine, reshape, and polish them. The ensuing arguments are the signs that we care. It’s through that conflict that the real luster starts to emerge.