I’ve just started reading “Collective Genius: the art and practice of leading innovation” by Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback. I’m only a few pages in, but one of the key leadership capabilities they describe for cultivating innovation in companies is “creative abrasion” for collaboration:
“The process of innovation needs to be collaborative because innovations most arise from the interplay of ideas that occur during the interactions of people with diverse expertise, experience of points of view”
There will be sticking points, where those diverse ideas and opinions clash. The only resolve is to create something new together – what Hill et al. call “integration”. They explain that this is a much better solution than imposing a solution or compromising, but it involves conflict.
The thing is, we naturally tend to avoid conflict – it’s uncomfortable and testing. But it’s a big misconception to believe that the best collaborations are those that have been harmonious from start to finish. Real collaboration is messy and chaotic, and it’s our ability to deal with those aspects, not avoid them, that make it productive and successful. Another quote from “Collective Genius”:
“Innovation requires not “get along” or “go along” cooperation but creative collaboration, which typically involves – should involve – passionate discussion and disagreement”
It seems that we need those people who actively disagree and question things when everyone is getting along just fine – and celebrate them. In a post titled “Does Kindness Kill Creativity?”, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener discuss how criticism is essential for good creativity. Ideas eventually need to be pulled apart to be made better, so by skirting around this, we’re doing creativity, and our team members, an injustice.
Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie suggest, amongst many other techniques, giving someone a “devil’s advocate” role in brainstorming sessions – someone who has permission to critique others’ suggestions – so that the team can be knocked out of “group think”. This needs to be done at the right time and in the right way, so that ideas have time to incubate before being analysed, and so that people are not discouraged from speaking up in the future. Techniques like Edward De Bono’s black hat could work well here.
So, who is going to step up and take that role? Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take: a revolutionary approach to success” describes “disagreeable givers” as, perhaps, the most undervalued members of your organisation. They want to help and are generous at heart, but they can come across as brash and sharp, because they are willing to tell the truth.
Grumpy people have an important place on your team. Again, Kashdan & Biswas-Diener published an excerpt from their book “The Upside of your Darkside” for NYMag’s Science of Us, explaining how people who have great attention to detail, tend to also be pessimistic. They have to focus on the things that could go wrong – we want air traffic controllers that notice potential dangers, rather than those who are too optimistic and miss crucial information.
This is similar to what Heidi Grant Halvorson calls promotion-focused and prevention-focused motivation mindsets (listen to an archive podcast from LDRLB to hear her explain the concepts in more detail). Those with a promotion-focused mindset see possibilities of what could be, and their biggest regrets are when they failed to take up a good opportunity. People with a prevention-focused mindset tend to look at potential risks and usually regret making a mistake that they weren’t able to foresee.
Both of these types of thinking have a place on teams, and the big challenge for leaders is to manage and balance this. We need conflict for good collaboration and innovation, but we can’t just leave teams to their own devices. It needs to be channelled productively, which I imagine is what Hill et al. will cover in more detail later in the book.
Image credit: Markus Grossalber on Flickr