The Innovation Side of Conflict


As a conflict adviser, I often hear this question: “How could conflict possibly be good for a business?”

My answer: Conflict is not good or bad, or something that we can guard against like the flu. Conflict is a natural part of human behavior and a necessary part of teamwork, innovation, problem-solving, and change. Yet most leaders are busy looking for ways to avoid conflict, not invite it.

What we do with the opposing ideas or needs that we call conflict can result in positive or negative outcomes, depending on how we handle them.

Taking it one step further, positive outcomes from (competently harnessed) conflict have the potential to be powerful and change-making. To encourage the creative thinking that inspires innovation, welcome conflict into your teams!

Why promote constructive conflict in your teams?

While not all conflicts are healthy to a workplace, constructive conflict well understood, welcomed and managed, can become a powerful innovation generator.  A significant body of research shows that companies which foster constructive conflict are more creative, innovative, and productive. To wit:

Effective teams use constructive resolutions of workplace conflict to spur innovation. (Source: CPP Global Human Capital Report, 2008). "Among all employees, 76% have seen conflict lead to a positive outcome; this figure rises to 81% and 84% in the U.S. and Brazil, respectively – the countries where training is most common. Belgium and France, where employees experience the least training, also have the lowest incidence of positive outcomes. This shows a clear link between training in conflict management and conflict’s impact as a catalyst for positive change."

 "The positive outcomes indicate that intellectual conflict can have important and positive effects on student learning and well-being." (Source: "Energizing Learning: The Instructional Power of Conflict." David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson)

As conflict advisers, our analysis of current research as well as our extensive experience ‘on the ground’ working with clients have taught us this: Constructive conflict is an extremely valuable tool that can help business teams enhance performance when it is actively and thoughtfully engaged in. Meeting conflict head-on with systems, structure and skillful management harnesses its power to ignite innovation.

 Here is what you stand to gain by embracing constructive conflict in your organization and in your teams: 

  • New ideas and innovation

  • Increased creativity and more open, quality communication

  • Improved problem-solving capacity

  • Discovery of new opportunities (short and long-term)

  • Higher and more sustainable decision quality

  • Speed to market

  • More adaptability to change/change efforts

  • Individual motivation and engagement

  • Higher levels of customer satisfaction

  • Positive reputation that attracts and retains talent

  • Greater tolerance and respect among team members

  • Higher team productivity and performance

  • Employee retention and advancement

  • Higher profitability leading to greater shareholder value

In today’s competitive environment, these are key elements to success. If a team has a dynamic that is built to deliver positive outcomes from conflict, it will be stronger, more innovative, and more high-performing than a team that does not. It’s never too late to create the kind of organizational dynamics and culture that harness the power of constructive conflict.

The Innovation Estimator™

A great place to start is to know how your team compares with highly-innovative, conflict-competent teams. What if you could answer the question: “What are the costs of NOT leveraging the innovation-generating potential of my team?” Well, you can - there’s a tool for that! It’s called the Innovation Estimator™ which we have developed through in-depth analyses of positive conflict outcomes from a baseline set of actual teams and performance factors. Through your custom answers about your team dynamics, you can calculate the yearly costs of having untapped conflict, as well as set the foundation for building conflict competence. This unique and easy-to-use tool is available for your use right here.

.If you have questions on this or anything related to constructive conflict, please feel free to schedule a conversation with us.