Clash Of Ideas: The Tension Of Innovation

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“In every organization we studied, we saw how leaders dealt with this ongoing source of tension.  They made sure the disapproval of more experienced expert members didn’t smother dissension, minority viewpoints, or the fresh perspectives of the inexperienced or the newcomer.  They encouraged constructive disagreement.  They gave people discretionary time to pursue their particular passions.  They recognized that individuals need engagement and connection, as well as intellectual and emotional space, to do their best work.  In short, leaders created places where individuals were willing to contribute their best efforts because they felt not only part of the group but also valued by and valuable to the group.”  -Hill, Brandeau, Truelove, and Lineback via Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation

Too often when we think of creativity and innovation, we think of passion, we think of inspiration, we think of the lone genius, and we think of that ‘aha’ moment where it all comes together.

Too little do we consider and understand the hard work and heavy lift creativity and innovation requires, the tension that arises from the need to engage in the positive conflict and candor necessary to get too the best ideas, and the collective effort that must be invested and expelled both cognitively and emotionally on an ongoing basis to make this work happen.

Inability to comprehend and build understanding around the heavy lift of this work is a disservice to the organization and those engaging in more creative and innovative work.  When we understand the demands, we are better prepared to face them head on.

As the authors of Collective Genius share, “Innovation emerges most often from the collaboration of diverse people as they generate a wide-ranging portfolio of ideas, which they then refine, improve, and even evolve into new ideas through discussion, give and take, and often-heated contention.”  

However, this work seldom flourishes in dysfunctional, command and control environments.  To engage in the candor and “clash of ideas” necessary to move past ‘whose’ idea to the ‘best’ idea requires collaborative environments built upon a foundation of high-levels of trust and empathy.

Without trust and empathy, the ‘best’ ideas never even make it to the table, and most often, they are never even shared.

The most creative and innovative organizations don’t just accept ideas, they engage ideas. They wrestle and fight with ideas, not because they don’t think they are good, but because they want to make them even better.  They learn to not hold any idea too close to the chest, understanding that any idea can be built upon and improved.  They approach the idea process with an attitude of positive “plussing” which allows ideas to expand and evolve.

Which is cognitively and emotionally demanding work.

As the authors of Collective Genius add, “Yet the friction of clashing ideas can be hard to bear.  The sparks that fly in heartfelt discussions can sting.  At a minimum, they can create tension and stress.  Many organizations consequently dislike conflict in any form and try to discourage it.  But blanket condemnation of all strife and conflict will only stifle the free flow of ideas and rich discussions that creative collaboration needs.”

Which requires a different kind of leadership.  Especially if you are going to be able to engage the organization in this level of creative and innovative work, especially on an ongoing basis.  It can be difficult, frustrating and even painful at times, which is why many organizations struggle with truly engaging and sustaining creative and innovative work.

Today’s organizations need leaders who realize the collective commitment and level of collaboration required to engage in this work and who are better prepared to create the conditions to engage it.  Leaders who are emotionally intelligent in supporting their people through the cognitive and emotional demands of the conflict and candor required of “plussing” ideas.  Leaders who can not only create the environment that allows this work to occur, but creates the conditions of trust and empathy necessary to do this work positively and effectively.

As the research of Hill, Brandeau, Truelove, and Lineback shows, “In every organization we studied, we saw how leaders dealt with this ongoing source of tension.  They made sure the disapproval of more experienced expert members didn’t smother dissension, minority viewpoints, or the fresh perspectives of the inexperienced or the newcomer.  They encouraged constructive disagreement.  They gave people discretionary time to pursue their particular passions.  They recognized that individuals need engagement and connection, as well as intellectual and emotional space, to do their best work.  In short, leaders created places where individuals were willing to contribute their best efforts because they felt not only part of the group but also valued by and and valuable to the group.”  

Which requires a different kind of leader and a different set of skill-sets to create the environment and culture to not only do this work, but do it effectively and to sustain it over time.

We live in a time where organizations are not just in want of creative and innovative thinking and action, but require it for ongoing relevance in a world that is shifting and changing in an exponential manner and at an accelerated pace.  And yet, we still struggle to hire and prepare today’s leaders for this new challenge, to lead this work in and across all levels of our modern organizations.

The better we prepare today’s leaders to create the environment for creativity and innovation to exist and flourish, the more relevantly our organizations and individuals will move forward into the future.

“Managing tensions in the organization is an ongoing issue…you don’t want an organization that just salutes and does what you say.  You want an organization that argues with you.  And so you want to nurture the bottoms up, but you’ve got to be careful you don’t just degenerate into chaos.”  -Bill Coughran Google

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