Innovation isn’t hard, conflict is

As I consider starting my own business doing what I would call “software innovation management consulting” I can’t help but notice that I’m far from alone. These consultants can help you empathize with your users, they can show you how IDEO and Stanford D school do it, they can help you with rapid prototyping, focus groups, vision and strategy, and they of course have written software to help. Is innovation really that hard that we need so much help? Isn’t it the natural inclination of anyone who notices something that could be better at work, at home, in the world at large? It is how we have gotten where we are today as a species. So why so much activity in the innovation management consulting space? Because while innovation is natural, conflict is hard.

I am tempted to first define innovation but I’ll save that for another article. Let’s assume we all agree on what it is for now and we agree that people want more of it. The struggle to innovate exists because in order for an idea to make it to the light of day, people need to agree with each other. And for that to happen, the group or organization that wants (so badly, with such good intentions) to innovate, needs to know how to enter into “healthy” conflict. Don’t believe me? Read on.

“Hey, I had this idea for how we can help our users with that problem we were talking about the other day.”

“Oh yeah? Me too!”

[disagreement about the what]

“Hey, you know how we are entering everything into that spreadsheet to track stuff? I think it would be so much easier for us if we used a database.”

“Oh yeah? I love that spreadsheet. I created it.”

[disagreement about the best process]

“Hey, we wouldn’t need these two widgets if we used this one widget. We could get rid of a widget!”

“I think the more widgets we have, the better the product”

[disagreement about the why disguised as disagreement about the what]

I could go on and on. What technology to use, what people we need, how long it will take… At some point people need to agree to move forward to deliver innovation. And disagreement is the point at which conflict (hopefully) starts. There are a bunch of ways teams deal with this point in time. Let’s fill in the next thing that happens to illustrate.

[feature idea]

Next thing: “I’m the PM, it’s my call.”

Uh oh… the tempting short cut of hierarchy or command and control. But if that second person is the developer of the feature, do you think that she is going to do her best work?

Result: innovation could happen, but my money is on no.

[spreadsheet or database]

Next thing: First person shrugs and walks away.

This could be avoidance or accommodating. Simply refusing to enter into conflict or letting the other person have their way. Even worse, the person who invented the spreadsheet may not even acknowledge that he disagrees. Major avoidance.

Result: likely no innovation and trust between these two has dropped.


Next thing: “How about we shoot for one and a half widgets?”

Oh, the dreaded compromise. Again, so tempting. So apparently useful to get the conflict done quickly and back to agreement where we are comfortable.

Result: maybe innovation but if so, by luck not intention.

A heated argument may also occur, with each person fighting hard to win. This is “unhealthy” conflict and is often what people are afraid will happen at that moment of disagreement.

What will lead to innovation? Collaboration. At the moment of disagreement there can be a choice to enter into collaboration instead of the more common responses. And happily, anyone in the discussion can make that choice.

“Great, let’s talk about both of our ideas and maybe even generate some more. I’ll bet we can figure out the best way together.”

“Yeah, the spreadsheet has worked for a long time and the database will be development work and might even be buggy. Maybe there are other ways we can make it faster. Let’s talk more.”

“Sounds like we aren’t in agreement yet about whether widgets are a good thing. Let’s hear each other out and see where we end up.”

Collaboration begins!

Let’s get back to all those innovation management consultants. Those processes do work. I am a huge fan of design thinking, vision and strategy development, and software to manage ideas. When implemented well what they succeed in doing (in addition to what they purport doing) is to reduce the amount of disagreement through shared context. The more empathy you have for your users (the first step in design thinking), the more you will agree on what they need. If your strategy is clear and everyone gets it, it makes all critical decisions easier. If you do rapid prototypes and test them with real users, you have results that tell you which prototype is better without having to enter into conflict.

Shared context is also created when you enter into collaboration. I’d even go so far as to say the definition of collaboration is when a group of people are actively creating shared context.

So how can you, right now, get more collaboration and therefore innovation out of your daily life and work without any consultants or learning a new process? Start by noticing that moment of disagreement and what happens right after. Notice if it’s compromise or avoidance or (yay!) collaboration. Then set the intention to bring more healthy conflict and collaboration. Here are some sentences to play with:

When ideas go by undiscussed (avoidance). “I noticed that Amanda expressed an idea that we didn’t really talk about. Can we talk about the pros and cons of that idea before we make a final decision?”. Goal: discussion about what’s important thereby creating shared context.

When the boss, whether actual or self-named, decides as soon as disagreement occurs (hierarchy). First off, this is often just a bad habit. Try this one on one: “In yesterday’s meeting, you made a decision before we really got to talk it through. Please tell me more about your thinking so I can share it with the team.” You could get shut down (which has happened to me!), but if you get an explanation, suggest that next time he share that with the team in the moment. Goal: Boss adds to the pool of shared context.

When the HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) shuts down conversation (accommodating). Very similar to the above, but in this case the boss wasn’t intending to decide. People just thought she was or were afraid to disagree with her. Again, one on one, point it out. “Did you notice when you offered your opinion in the meeting yesterday, the conversation stopped? I think people might be afraid to disagree with you”. Goal: Allowing more innovative ideas into the pool.

If you are thinking at this point “are you crazy? I can’t say that to my boss!”, I realize it can feel like a CLM (career limiting move) to talk to your boss as I am recommending. By all means, don’t do it if your culture is so unhealthy that you fear for your job. But if you do have that fear and your goal is to innovate, you might want to start looking around. And in my experience, most leaders are not as closed to feedback as you would think. If it’s done with respect and authenticity.

When the self-appointed peacemaker tries to stop the arguing with a compromise. There is almost always at least one person in the room that is so uncomfortable with unhealthy conflict that they step in and try and facilitate a compromise. Try “That sounds like a compromise and maybe it’s the right one. Just to be sure though, why don’t we take a step back and discuss what success looks like?” Goal: get back to creating shared context.

Good luck and happy innovating!