Friday, April 13, 2012

Tread carefully with conflict. Creativity might not be the beneficiary.

We are being encouraged to welcome conflict in group and teamwork to improve creativity. So says Jonah Lehrer in his new book Imagine along with a number of critics of the traditional brainstorming method. The classical method recommends generating and building on ideas first before judging.  What the critics don’t tell us is how to debate or butt heads without doing harm.

Interpersonal communication and coaching training universally emphasize “constructive” feedback and asking “the great questions”. These gold standards are useful guides as we learn better how to get more value out of creative encounters in group settings. Underlying the gold standards is the exploration of assumptions or frames for “seeing” a challenge or situation a particular way. Once shared and different assumptions are identified, novel ideas often flow because each person is more open to another’s point-of-view. This is the environment to cultivate for great brainstorming.

But there is an art to this. Teams at minimum are comprised of different personality types and increasingly different cultures. Introverts, who like to think in advance and ponder about the ideas swirling around for a bit, typically do not thrive in an emotionally-charged debating environment. As Erin Meyer points out in “Managing confrontation in multicultural teams” (April 6, 2012, HBR Blog), people from many Asian cultures consider confrontation to be rude. On the other hand, that is not the case for North Americans in general and to varying degrees, Europeans. For example, French teams intuitively encourage conflict to reveal hidden contradictions and stimulate new thinking.

To tread a little more carefully, here are ways that Meyer and neuroscientists suggest for offsetting the potential downside of conflict while improving creative thinking:

1. Enable people to prepare their thoughts in advance. Collaborative tools which honour anonymity, one-on-one phone calls or a few simple questions answered in the security of one’s own working space can set the stage for a productive and relaxed meeting.

2. Use constructive interpersonal communication approaches. As Meyer recommends, refrain from saying “I disagree with that”. Instead try “Please explain more why you think that”. Or, use the tenets of great questions starting with “how” and “what” rather than “why”?

3. Take advantage of a variety of creative thinking tools. Any method that does not put pressure on specific individuals yet adds an atmosphere of fun and non-judgment will open up minds no matter the cultural backgrounds and thinking styles of the team members.

Since wise decisions are the aim in problem-solving, a study by the University of Waterloo’s Igor Grossman on age and wisdom (April 7, 2012, The Economist) offers insights into leavening the “dissonance” challenge in society. The parameters Grossman and his colleagues used to compare and contrast wisdom among Americans versus Japanese encompassed five crucial aspects of wise reasoning:

1. Willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict
2. Willingness to search for compromise
3. Recognition of the limits of personal knowledge
4. Awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist
5. Appreciation that the situation may get worse before it gets better

No matter your conflict tolerance, these five interpersonal and intergroup principles are a more helpful guide to encouraging conflict and creativity than simply “let’s do conflict”.