“I am going to tell you about my current hypothesis and working model—I welcome your comments and criticisms. Models are meant to be broken”. That is how a well respected researcher from a top academic institution began his seminar. He certainly got my attention. The speaker did not lack confidence in his work, quite the opposite. He was open to having his ideas challenged and honed into better ones. It is the very process that makes for great science.
The idea of productive discourse or creative conflict is of course not new or limited to science, yet we often struggle with or avoid it all together. In her TEDTalk “Dare to Disagree,” Margaret Heffernan talks about surveys of executives who were afraid to raise issues due to the conflict they would provoke. They avoided getting involved in arguments they couldn’t manage and thought they would lose. Conflict can be difficult, messy, and unpredictable. Heffernan urges not to be afraid of conflict, but to see it as a model for thinking and something to get good at. In fact, doing our best work depends on it.
Creative conflict was also the subject of a recent Harvard Business Review article “The Right Kind of Conflict Leads to Better Products”. Eli Lilly wanted to know what factors contribute to good alliances. They track the health of their alliances and found that the most productive ones in terms of technical and commercial success were those where Lilly employees were actually irritated with the partner. The irritation resulted from a productive, creative tension where there were disagreements about tactics and strategy. The productive conflict resulted in full engagement and solving problems.
We can hire the best teams, but will achieve only suboptimal results if everyone is silent for fear of conflict. Or, perhaps worse, if they agree by offering a “counterfeit yes”. In his book “Never Split the Difference,” former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss defines a counterfeit yes as something people often give to stall or dodge an issue. In some cases it is used in hopes that the person or problem will go away if they agree. Unfortunately, this kind of agreement is not a real one—commitment does not follow. If we suspect a yes is given too quickly and might be a counterfeit yes, we can probe a little deeper. For example, by asking how something will be implemented, we begin to reveal the real level of engagement.
Rather than simply wanting to hear “yes,” we should instead encourage people to engage. That means identifying key issues, areas of disagreement, discussing and thinking through problems, and creating solutions that are actually implemented.
The next time someone challenges an idea or result, ask why and invite discussion. The worse case is wasting only a little time, the best case is saving a lot of time and making a project successful.