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Find The Creative Gold in Irreconcilable Differences

We work with teams. We also work with couples. Sometimes the two overlap.

When a couple is running a business, the stakes can feel higher when the team bumps into what seem like irreconcilable differences. When this happens, teams can get caught in problem solving and miss the possibility for creativity. In fact, there are three creativity killers commonly used to avoid conflict that actually makes the situation worse.

When teams or couples are stuck in these three creativity-killer traps, we help them shift so that they can access the potential that is all around them.

Architecture Design Firm

An Architecture Design firm we worked with a while back ran into these issues, head on.

The firm was started by Sally and Frank—a couple—as well as Sally’s best friend, Peggy. Sally was the CEO, and her focus was design, while Frank was the architect, and Peggy was the CFO.

The business had grown steadily for eight years, and they were hitting over $15 million in revenue. Their three-year goal was to hit $20M. They were a year in when revenue stalled. That’s when we got a call from Peggy about doing a strategic offsite for the company.

In that first conversation, Peggy revealed that the business was actually starting to lose money. While she did think the company needed a strategic offsite to sort things out, the real issue was an increasing gap between Sally and Frank that Peggy did not know how to handle. Peggy told Sally and Frank that a strategic session was needed to get reinspired and back on track to hit the $20M goal.

During the offsite the team revealed that six months previous, Sally had landed a contract with a high-end intentional-living community. This was right up Sally’s alley, and she was passionate about the project and believed everyone was on board, driving for that $20M goal.

At the time of the offsite, though, the profit margin for the project was being eroded. When Peggy went through the numbers, she shared how much was being spent in architect fees and Sally exploded.

“What?! Frank, why are we paying other architects when you are doing the job?”

What came back was, “Look I am doing the best I can. Back off! I needed help.”

So we were smack dab in the middle of the team’s, the couple’s, and the business’s “Oh Sh*t!” moment.

The Blame Game

It would have been pretty simple at that point to follow the blame game.

  • It’s Frank fault for not working hard enough.

  • It’s Sally’s fault for picking such a big a project and not really having buy-in.

  • It’s Peggy’s fault for not addressing the money issue sooner.

Indeed, any one of these rabbit holes could have eaten up lots of time and even created some type of solution, but these were not likely the best or the most creative insights.

Instead, we suggested taking a different route.

What’s Really Going On?

This alternative path involves stepping away from just problem solving and going deeper into what is driving each person’s decisions or behaviors. We believe the most effective path originates from a place of genuine curiosity rather than a right-wrong track.

It wasn’t a straight path but eventually Frank spoke up: “Listen, I tried to tell you before you signed on to this project. This is your passion, not mine. I have always wanted to do more commercial work. I have gone along as best I could, but I have picked up some commercial projects of my own. So I back filled with another firm.”

Sally was crushed and still upset, “How did I not know? I always thought that this is what we both, all of us, wanted. We have worked so hard to create this direction.”

Frank was silent. Peggy looked on helplessly.

Sally responded, “I don’t know how to get through this. You want something I don’t. We want such different things.” It seemed like Sally and Frank were facing irreconcilable differences that would split the company apart.

Again, we encouraged them to hold off on trying to solve the problem.

Three Creativity Killers

In relationships—both on teams, and in couples—there are at least three surefire creativity killers.

The Right-Wrong Trap: The first creativity killer is the right–wrong trap, meaning it has to be my way or your way. Either I win with my idea or I lose to your idea.

What we miss in this right-wrong, either-or thinking is we are only focused on two options, which automatically limits our choices. We put our energy into defending our position or attacking yours. It is a narrow, either-or focus in which no one wins because we artificially limit our options.

Different Problems: The second creativity killer is that we are each trying to solve different problems but assume we are solving the same problem. There’s little or no dialogue to clarify. For example, Sally was solving the “how to reach $20M” problem but not really listening to confirm that was the only issue. Frank was solving the “how to make sure Sally and he each get to do the work they love” problem. Peggy was trying to solve the problem of keeping Sally and Frank together. Each was addressing a different problem and not working it through together.

Rushing to a Solution: The third creativity killer is the rush to get to a solution. This is a very common choice in business. It is easy to justify that the clock is ticking and we need to get a move on it.

While that may be true, more of the issue is that we are so uncomfortable with the ambiguity and tension of being in the chaos of not knowing that we prematurely rush to solution. This is when we hear things like:

  • “I’m tired of this. We need to make a choice and get on with it.”


  • “We can have all the discussion you want, we just need this solved by Wednesday.”

The underlying meaning here is, I’m not really going to listen; just get me to the right answer.

Getting to Collective Creativity

When teams or couples are stuck in these three creativity-killer traps, we help them shift so that they can access the potential that is all around them.

Slow Down and Let Go of Driving to a Solution

The first step is to slow things down and not rush to a solution. In order to actually hear someone else, we have to suspend our desire to have the right solution. This is counterintuitive; of course when there is a problem we want to fix it. While fixing it is not always the best solution, having a discussion about it invariably is the first and best step to creatively solving the problem.

When we were able to get Sally, Frank, and Peggy to slow down and get curious about what was happening, Frank spoke up and let Sally know he was unhappy and never in alignment with the new project. This did cause some pain and concern, but Sally was able to let it in. She acknowledged that while she had heard his desire for something other than residential design, she thought the intentional community solved that. She also revealed that when she got the contract, she was so excited that she probably didn’t listen when he said no.

With less focus on solving the problem quickly and more focus on what was driving each person to the actions they were taking, we were able to get underneath and create a different space for creative options—not just fixing problems.

A Surprising Creative Solution—$20M Plus

Once the conversation got to what was really driving people’s behavior and there was vulnerability, curiosity, and space for a new possibility, magic did happen!

Peggy remembered that the Intentional Community had been talking about their own financial issues. They had brought Peggy in for a consult a couple months back and were looking for commercial investments. It had been a separate and seemingly unrelated request for advice. Peggy had never even thought of talking to Frank or Sally about this idea.

Having everything on the table, she realized that Frank might be the perfect architect for their project, which included building reviews and the redesign for any purchased projects.

In the end, the idea evolved into a win-win for everyone. Frank enjoyed working with the Board and getting engaged in the commercial projects. The Architectural Design Firm hit $20M six months ahead of schedule, and each of the founders was thrilled with what they were doing!

In Summary

When teams are facing what can seem like irreconcilable differences, it may seem like a solution is what is called for. Sometimes the best solution, meaning the creative one, will only emerge when the team takes a different approach and remains curious through conflict.

Stepping away from problem-solving and slowing down, listening, and getting underneath the differences is where you find the creative gold.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.

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