Conflict and Innovation
Executives often complain to us about the level of conflict within their teams, or the abilities of their teams to resolve conflict. Often, in the same session, they will wonder as to why they don’t achieve greater levels of innovation in their products. Sometimes we hear things like “My team is too conflict avoidant – they won’t resolve their issues”, or “I simply don’t get why product and engineering won’t get along”, or “My engineers (or finance team, or team XYZ) simply won’t listen to the rest of the business teams”. With respect to innovation, quotes range from “Why aren’t we more innovative” to “It seems like I’m the only one with ideas around here!” Well guess what? It’s YOUR FAULT!
The simple truth is that what we do and just as importantly, do not do as executive teams sets the stage for the creation and escalation of conflict and maximization or minimization of innovation within our teams. Before I get into some of the drivers and results of both conflict and innovation, let me first spend some time trying to define some terms and clear up some fallacies surrounding the term “conflict”.
2 Types of Conflict
Psychologists and sociologists, especially those who study conflict, conflict resolution and innovation, recognize the following:
1) Affective Conflict (sometimes termed Role Based) is “bad conflict”. Affective conflict typically involves “who” should be responsible for doing something or “how” something should be done. Any way you cut it, our jobs as leaders are to try to minimize this type of conflict and set up systems to reduce the probability that it happens. Affective conflict is never good.
2) Cognitive Conflict is “good conflict”. This type of conflict deals with “what” should be done and “why” something should be done. When handled properly, it helps increase strategic possibilities, open up new doors for innovation and drives teams to better answers. When left unhandled by leaders, it will often escalate into affective conflict and be detrimental to overall performance.
I will just call these terms “bad conflict” and “good conflict”.
Outcomes (or consequences) of Conflict
Here we see why affective conflict is “bad” and cognitive conflict is “good”.
1) High levels of bad conflict are highly correlated with lower morale, high rates of employee turnover within teams, slower time to market, lower levels of financial/business performance, and lower levels of perceived performance within teams. Bad conflict minimizes and very often can completely eliminate innovation within a team.
2) High levels of properly handled good conflict are highly correlated with higher morale, higher employee retention, higher levels of innovation, happier teams, faster time to market and higher levels of financial and business performance.
Put simply, you want lots of quickly resolved and properly facilitated good (“what and why”) conflict and very little bad (“who and how”) conflict.
Drivers of Bad Conflict
Research indicates that there are many drivers of “bad” conflict. Here are some of the most frequent drivers:
1) Team Alignment: Without getting into the theoretical specifics, teams find themselves in conflict along team boundaries that are defined by organization structure and the resulting individual identities. If you have an “engineering team” and a “product team” on your organization charts, the employees will identify with one or the other and sometimes conflict along those boundaries.
2) Employee Tenure: Research shows that employees also identify themselves along tenure boundaries. These may be the “old guard” and the “new employees” or the “founding team” and the “new team”, etc. While not codified within an org chart, this stratification of employee identities can lead just as much to conflict creation as an actual organization.
3) Leadership Approach: Engaging in quid-pro-quo management (“Do this for me, and I’ll do that for you”) is highly correlated with conflict creation. Individuals think of themselves, rather than a team.
4) Loosely Defined Responsibilities: Chaos breeds conflict. When people don’t understand the boundaries and expectations, they attempt to expand or define each for themselves which in turn increases strife.
Out with the Bad and In with the Good
Bad conflict is inversely correlated with good conflict. The more bad conflict you have, the less good conflict you have. Good conflict on the other hand correlates directly with innovation. The higher the good conflict, the higher the level of innovation. The fix to ending bad and promoting the good is to address each of the areas above.
1) Team Alignment: Create cross functional teams aligned around product or service initiatives – not functions or experiences. Each team should have all the experience across all domains that it needs to be successful.
2) Employee Tenure: Eliminate old and new employees who cling to tenure based identities. Ensure everyone understands there is one, and only one company identity (though there may be product identities within the company – but each of these has everything they need to be successful).
3) Leadership Approach: End quid pro quo leadership and talk about higher purposes and team accomplishments. Make the job about something other than just the individual. Eliminate people who are “in it for themselves” and won’t contribute to the higher cause.
4) Loosely Defined Responsibilities: A leader has many responsibilities and one of them is to eliminate uncertainty where possible. Help people quickly resolve conflict with roles. Don’t let employees come into conflict or stay in conflict about competing roles and responsibilities.