July 10, 2007
Staff Picks: A "Weird Idea that Works"
(From Chapter 8 of Weird Ideas that Work by Robert I. Sutton)
Find Some Happy People and Get Them to Fight
(Weird Idea #5)
If you want innovation, you need happy warriors, upbeat people who know the right way to fight. A growing body of research suggests that conflict over ideas is good, especially for groups and organizations that do creative work. Constant argument can mean there is a competition to develop and test as many good ideas as possible, that there is wide variation in knowledge and perspectives. One study, for example, showed that when group members fought over conflicting ideas, it provoked them to weave others' ideas together with their own, to insist that others provide a compelling logical rationale for their ideas, and to contribute still more ideas. The resulting solutions were more comprehensive, integrated, and well-defended.
Even though our conversations sometimes feel circular and drawn-out, I feel strongly that the conflict and questioning our creative team brings to new projects ultimately make the results even better. With a few ground rules (like Be Nice, and Don't Yell), a group of strong-minded, passionate people can utilize conflict to shape a good idea into a great product.
Sutton differentiates between destructive and constructive conflict. Destructive conflict is argument over relationships or personalities, while "task" or "intellectual" (constructive) conflict happens when people argue over ideas (86). He presents evidence that groups are more successful and effective at creative work when relatively happy, upbeat people enrich decision-making with facts, alternatives, questions, and defense. He warns, however, that "intellectual conflicts are never so free of personal animus, stubbornness, or anger as this distinction implies."
Groups that fight over ideas can, all too easily, slip into nasty personal conflict, especially when reputations, careers, and big bucks are riding on the group's performance. People who have their ideas attacked may, perhaps rightly, believe they are facing thinly veiled personal attacks. These negative reactions can make it hard to learn from critical comments. They may also provoke revenge, which can be cloaked as rational arguments against an opponent's position or be unbridled personal attacks against the critic's skill or integrity.
Sutton suggests some antidotes to these lurking fears or potential disruptions. Humor, for one, brings relief and positive feelings to the group. Management that keeps its employees happy also contributes to an environment in which intellectual conflict is constructive. He even suggests that "people who are successful at creative work and are involved in other kinds of tasks with high failure rates might need to be more than just optimistic. To keep moving forward and to maintain their mental health, they might benefit by deluding themselves about the probability of their success." Overestimating their chances and being overconfident can inspire creatives to work harder.
Sutton also recommends hiring a few grumpy people--after all, they're often better at finding errors and offering legitimate criticism--but keeping them away from the optimists. As he puts it, "when you need their expertise and critique, bring them out briefly, and then send them back into isolation."
We've also written about Weird Ideas that Work here:
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.