Q: What’s the connection between conflict and collective creativity?
CrisMarie: Get this – the latest brain research shows that our creativity kicks in when our brains have access to competing ideas. It’s like an all you can eat buffet of possibilities – that causes our subconscious minds to mix and match ideas in fresh ways our conscious brain wouldn’t. This is why it’s so crucial as a leader to encourage conflict on their team – and the tension and ambiguity that comes along with it. Simply put, without that tension and the disagreement, there is no creativity.
Susan: Conflict occurs when there are strong emotions, differing opinions and high stakes – now, doesn’t that sounds like a leadership team meeting? The challenge is that many smart, passionate people are so used to trusting themselves and their judgment… that they have run the risk of overlooking the major benefit of what we call “collective creativity.” That’s when the best of one idea gets mixed with the best of someone else’s idea… and that new idea emerges as something far more innovative and clever than any one person’s plan!
Now, that mixing of ideas takes tolerance, vulnerability, and curiosity from the team, but when they’ve got the skills and structure to make sure that happens consistently – WOW! – something totally new is possible.
with CrisMarie and Susan
Q: But teams try to avoid or minimize conflict – so you’re saying that’s a problem. Why?
CrisMarie: When a team avoids conflict, two things happen. First, people meet with their buddies to talk about it, while unproductive behaviors go unaddressed. Second, because the conflict has ‘gone underground,’ the team never gets to hear multiple viewpoints that spark collective creativity – ideas that the group invents together, that don’t actually belong to any one person.
Experiencing conflict – and the personal discomfort that often goes with it -- is required for collective creativity. If your team has silently agreed to avoid conflict, clashes, and tension at all costs, you never get the payoff, namely creative thinking and problem solving.
Susan: When a team tried to downplay conflict, they are ‘dumbing down’ the team’s collective intelligence. Avoiding conflict means someone in the room is biting her tongue. That’s a handicap.
It’s not doing anyone any favors, either. The best teams are made up of a range of skills and expertise… this naturally will create conflict! Which means most teams think about conflict as this negative thing, when really it’s the juice for creativity, innovation, and extraordinary smart problem solving. If you never let conflict out in the room, you never get access to that firepower.
Q: Wait -- aren’t there also teams that have TOO MUCH conflict
CrisMarie: Absolutely! We have found this happens in competitive cultures where people are encouraged to argue and try to beat each other. That type of interaction lacks vulnerability, trust, and curiosity. It may lead to results, but it’s difficult to sustain.
And usually isn’t very pleasant for the people involved. That’s not what we mean when we talk about conflict. We mean the clashes and disagreements that naturally arise when smart, passionate people come together. For that conflict to be productive, you’ve got to be willing to be vulnerable and curious.
Susan: Conflict is energy. So I’m not sure I would ever think there’s too much of it. That said, there can be too much aggression and fight. These type of teams and organizations take pride in yelling and fighting it out. But that has very little to do with using conflict.
Often people assume conflict is another word for fighting. As I see it, conflict is simply when there are opposing views, strong emotions and high stakes. It’s a situation that naturally arises when smart people come together. The energy is there. It's just a question of whether a team knows how to channel that energy towards its goals, or tries to defuse or bury that energy.
Aggression and fight are just two more ways people try to defuse or overpower conflict energy on a team. They can be useful for short bursts of individual excellence. But even so, that individual excellence often comes at a huge cost to team engagement and collective brilliance.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake you see teams making, when it comes to handling conflict?
CrisMarie: The biggest mistake is watering down what you have to say so you never really say it. This is also called being polite. If I am worried about you each time I want to disagree, it makes for an uptight, unsatisfying experience. We want teams to be able to lean in and get passionate about their ideas and differences, which may get messy. And that’s okay!
Susan: When two people are disagreeing with each other, they are often encouraged to take it offline. The idea is that this spares the group discomfort or inefficiency of witnessing the clash.
But when you take this approach, you rob the group of learning the value of dialogue and debate. You lose the team’s help in creating the best space for opposing views and strong emotions.
And more times than not, the real conversation never happens. Nothing resolves, and all that potential energy for collective intelligence goes to waste.
Q: My team is not in conflict – but we do need to get our act together. Where do I start?
CrisMarie: First off, remember that conflict is natural when smart, passionate people are working together towards a share goal. So even if your team isn’t bumping into conflict now, it will.
Teams that do not regularly bump into conflict often are playing it safe or not playing together. Maybe their work is segregated. Maybe each person is focused on their own area. That’s not a team. It’s a bunch of individuals who are working alone, together.
So a great place to start is to come up with a collective goal, what we call a Rallying Cry. This will drive your team to play together and wrestle with what the best plan, solution, or idea is. Then each team member has skin in the game and you’ll win together. That would really move your business forward.
Susan: If it’s true your team doesn’t have any conflict – that’s a problem! My guess is that your team does have conflict… but it’s getting suppressed. This might look like less than full engagement in meetings.
It might be that meetings are focused more on reporting and less on problem solving (or looking forward). It might be that your team doesn’t have collective goals, so they are operating more like solo champions than a championship team.
Start by determining what is most important to move the business forward. Do this as a group. Ask: What’s the #1 thing we can do to move the business forward? Right there, you may find some great debate!
After you agree on that number one goal, make sure you also agree to all be accountable to each other. This is a commitment that each team member will speak up and weigh in moving forward. That’s a great first step to tap into the collective intelligence in the room, but you’ve got to mean it.
Q: Our team is doing pretty well, how would this help us get
CrisMarie: The work we do with teams is about helping them learn how to use conflict to get to strategic and tactical clarity that drives collective creativity.
When teams have the right level of conflict, it’s powerful. They can have those vital conversations – the ones where they wrestle with an idea to make sure they come up with best plan, idea, or solution.
Working with us, you’ll come away with that organizational clarity, making sure you are doing the right things, and everyone is rowing in the same direction. Plus, I’ll bet you’ll clear up some interpersonal differences the process!
Susan: Some of the best teams we have worked with already have a commitment to be frank and honest with each other. In other words, they are in conflict and they know how to use it.
They work with us because they know there’s more they can do to maximize their collective intelligence and creativity. These are growth-oriented teams who know that as they evolve, next-level challenges will pop up. And they want to make sure they are meeting those challenges with all the smarts and firepower they’ve got.
CrisMarie and I aren’t trainers. We deal with a team’s issues in real-time. This means that teams that are really good at being vulnerable and curious can really dive into their issues… we can just assist in ensuring the playing field is optimal and will call foul if needed! This is when and where the best of collective creativity can happen!