Nodding is bad for your brain….

Why creative conflict is an important part of successful innovation

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One of the huge cast of characters created by the wonderful humorous writer P. G. Wodehouse was Wilmot Mulliner. Perhaps not so well known as Jeeves and Wooster he’s nevertheless an interesting subject. We’re introduced to him at a difficult time in his life; he’s employed in the burgeoning film industry, working for Mr Schnellenhamer, the head of the Perfecto-Zizzbaum Corporation, a film studio. And he’s not a happy man.

His role is that of a ‘Nodder’ and, as Wodehouse explains, this is similar to a Yes-Man except lower in the social scale. He is expected to nod in agreement to what the chief executive says but only after all the Yes-Men have said yes. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s getting a little fed up with this role.

Wilmot is a wonderfully comic creation but also a reminder of what we don’t want in our world of creativity. We know good ideas don’t come from a single person — perfectly formed. They benefit from challenge and argument. Look at any theatre group — it’s the fighting and arguing, often very emotional — which leads to the real innovation. Look at Pixar, the film studio which has developed the skill of repeating their award-winning innovation trick regularly. It’s built on a carefully developed culture of creative conflict, about as far from the Perfecto-Zizzbaum Corporation as it’s possible to get. Look at Fleetwood Mac, or the Beatles or any long-lasting rock band and you’ll almost certainly find their creative success owes a lot to good old fashioned argument.

10cc’s ‘I’m not in love’ song has had a long and happy life since its release in 1975, being used as soundtrack to countless films as well as selling a healthy 5 million physical copies and being downloaded many times that number. Yet the initial reaction by band member Kevin Godley when he heard it was ‘ …it’s not working, man. It’s just crap, right? Chuck it.’ Fortunately his fellow band members persisted and through their creative conflict a classic track was born.

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It’s the same in the world of business — the creative powerhouse which was Edison’s Invention Factory wasn’t a calm or quiet place, it was full of hot-tempered argument and differences of opinion. Charles (Boss) Kettering who became the CEO of General Motors in its early days rose to prominence as an innovator, bringing key devices such as the electric starter to the world. But his ‘Barn Gang’ were just like Edison’s, full of ideas and not afraid to argue around them to knock them into shape.

Creative conflict is a key part of the innovation process — and it’s a valuable one. Providing the conflicts get resolved and aren’t allowed to fester under the surface; ideas not taken forward or viewpoints not acknowledged can act to poison future innovation.

Part of the problem is that it’s easy to think of criticism and challenge as destructive forces. If we take a manufacturing analogy then we can see them as being part of a machining process, cutting away at extraneous material to reveal the valuable core. But an alternative might be to see them as part of an additive process, gradually building the idea up, rather like a 3D printer works by adding layers to create a valuable object.

Creative addition of this kind is how and why diversity matters — it brings in new strands of knowledge, different perspectives, alternative insights. We know this makes sense but it only works if those different voices are heard and their contributions absorbed into the emergent idea to value process.

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Which is why a young advertising executive, Alex Osborn, developed his idea of brainstorming back in the 1950s “Mad Men’ era. In his 1957 book ‘Applied imagination’ he laid out some simple ground rules for coming up with creative ideas. He’d observed that there are plenty of pressures which block or stifle good ideas — hierarchy, peer pressure, group norms, etc. Under such conditions it’s not easy for a new idea to be born, especially when we don’t know much about it. So he suggested a model to give these early ideas a fighting chance, one in which judgment was postponed, not eliminated.

His model for ‘brainstorming’ had 4 basic elements:

  1. Withhold criticism
  2. Welcome wild ideas
  3. Combine and improve ideas

Great in theory and his ideas have been enormously influential to the point that the word ‘brainstorm’ is widely used. The trouble is that it often doesn’t work.

It’s not that the idea is bad but its implementation often leaves a lot to be desired. Think about it — how many times have you been in a session where the ground rules are set — ideas matter, no criticism, etc. Pretty soon the walls are papered with fluorescent scraps of paper which flutter seductively; somewhere in there must the breakthrough idea, the big one which will solve our problem.

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The trouble is that’s often where we leave it. The ideas are up there but in raw form, and lots of them. Even if we vote for the ‘best’ ideas this is often little more than a clustering exercise which focuses in on the ones which look promising. What we don’t do is elaborate and what we almost never do is challenge, criticise, confront the ideas. It’s as if we feel that this would be breaking the rules.

Osborn’s instincts were right — what we’ve learned about psychological safety is that offering new ideas is a risky business and we need to feel comfortable before we do so. What he was aiming for was just such an environment, bounded by some simple ground rules which create a temporary place where we can feel that it’s OK to speak up and offer suggestions. Being unable to question or suggest puts us in back in the world of the Perfecto-Zizzbaum Corporation

But we also have to accept that the last part of his valuable prescription is often missing — combining and improving ideas. Ideas benefit from shaping, refinement, addition, modification — ideation isn’t a flash of inspiration but a process in itself.

So we really need a two-phase model of ideation and capture followed by elaboration and amplification. Osborn recognised this; he didn’t argue for no judgment but rather for postponing it. What emerges from the many studies about brainstorming is that there is a process at work around shared ideation which can lead to valuable outcomes. But we need the ability to challenge and comment on ideas and frameworks and tools to help us do so in controlled fashion.

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Elaborating and refining our ideas with others can take several forms. It might involve stand up rows over artistic differences within a theatre group or it could take a slightly less emotionally charged approach. The important thing is that there is a framework process for commenting on and refining and elaborating the ideas. Being able to build creative conflict into a process is valuable; Pixar’s ability to deliver a string of highly successful innovative films is very much based on their internal challenge process.

(Even our volatile theatre types are actually working with a controlled process. One of the things about learning the acting profession is not just technique, it’s the skill set of being able to hit the ground running, slot in quickly with a bunch of strangers and create something. And that includes being able to handle and work with creative conflict towards a resolution. The journey there might be stormy but the destination is worth it).

One way in which creative challenge and construction around ideas can be done at scale is via collaboration platforms. These are becoming increasingly popular as a way of harnessing ‘collective intelligence’ across organizations, effectively crowdsourcing ideas as fuel for the innovation process. A key feature in their success is not simply that they enable the old suggestion box to operate at scale but that they allow for commenting and helping improve on ideas.

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The model typically works a bit like Facebook and other social media. Someone posts an idea and then others react to it , at the simplest just ‘liking’ it. But better are those comments which take the ‘yes and..’, ‘have you thought about…’ how about adding… ‘ approach — in other words elaborating the ideas. Outright criticism is not a good approach — posting ‘that’s stupid!’ wouldn’t help and the platform moderators would likely remove it fast. But challenge is OK, highlighting areas of possible weakness which could be explored further or signposting valuable new directions in which to take the idea. Experienced innovation managers use the ratio of comments to original ideas as an important operating metric — a good idea will have many comments posted to refine the original thoughts.

In doing so platforms of this kind can draw in new knowledge, different experience, unexpected perspectives and new insights. They help create a network of knowledge around the idea and they build a community around an idea which is committed to seeing that idea succeed. Being able to mobilise this kind of network over time in support of many different challenges creates the possibility of a live innovation culture.

One of the founding fathers of the quality movement which built so much on employee involvement in innovation was Joseph Juran. He talked a lot about ‘the gold in the mine’ referring to the wealth of good ideas which any workforce possesses and which could potentially contribute to moving the organization forward. But he also pointed out that getting the gold from the mine required a great deal of effort — essentially raw ore needs to be converted into precious metal. And a key part of this is the kind of ‘co-creation’ process of refining and developing ideas which we’ve been looking at in this blog.

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john bessant

Innovation teacher/coach/researcher and these days trying to write songs, sketches and other ways to tell stories