How I Use Conflict and Failure to Boost Innovative Thinking

a chess board with a piece laying down

As an innovation consultant, I am always looking to improve my innovative thinking. I tend to look at the world in a curious way, always thinking “how can this be changed?”

I joke about living in a constant stage of displeasure over the state of how things are compared to how they could be.  I’m not a pessimist, and I have a feeling that many innovators approach their experiences in this way.

Many of the problems I try to solve are due to failure.  A product doesn’t work right or as expected.  A solution doesn’t truly solve the problem I needed to solve.  The job I needed to be done was not completed or done well.

A lot of the meetings and conversations I have with businesses and my team revolve around conflict.  Taking a tip from The Table Group’s Patrick Lencioni, most meetings would benefit from having a little more conflict.  How many meetings have you sat in where it was a review of the previous meeting, the financials, and conversations without actions?  Alternatively, how many meetings have you attended that started from a point of tension or excitement?  Conflict doesn’t have to be bad – it’s a way to work out what problems actually need solutions.

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How does this boost innovative thinking?

Think about the last time you used a product or received a service that didn’t go as expected.  Our expected results of solving a problem are important as consumers. Companies are often not as attuned to those expectations as they should be and cannot get ahead of the problem.  We, as customers and consumers, can speak to the job being done or not being done with the solutions we purchase, and oftentimes can propose ideas for better outcomes.

A Story

Recently, I had an issue with the flush valve on my toilet.  The expectation was that buying a new valve would solve a problem I was having where the level of water in the bowl was lower than I’d like.  The existing valve was old and was incapable of solving that problem. In my mind, the new valve would be a better choice.

The new valve solved the problem with the water level; however, there’s a flaw in the design of the flapper. This meant that the tank slowly drained, causing the tank to have to refill occasionally throughout the day.  My original problem was solved, but now I have a new one.  I researched and decided against a new valve (this is a common problem so I found), and had to be more resourceful to solve this problem.  By weighting the flapper valve a bit with metal washers, the tank stayed full until the toilet was flushed.  While I was able to solve the problem in a roundabout way, the company should be investigating customer complaints and choosing a flapper material that is heavier, or a design that works better than the existing one. 

This example shows how a flaw in a product design brings out the problem-solver, or innovator, in us.  Likely, you’ve come across similar issues with products you use that you’ve altered or edited to serve your need.  In companies, they can take this further in two ways.  One, continually communicate with customers and find out problems that exist with your products and services.  By putting the customer experience front and center, you can create solutions that work and meet the expectations they have for their purchase.  Two, check in with your staff to find ways to improve internal problems that exist.  Redundancies, ergonomic issues, and safety hazards are a great place to start solving problems.  It’s also easier to troubleshoot and brainstorm solutions on situations that are palpable and close to those working on them.

An Example of Innovative Thinking

Now, imagine going into a meeting where the first point of conversation was around solving a mutual problem.  In order to present the problem you have to have some level of conflict or tension. It will be tough to get everyone to rally around a single solution otherwise (again, a nod to Patrick Lencioni).  Having meetings that are passionate, communicative, and action-oriented should be the goal of every business. Many shy away from disagreements at the expense of true collaboration.

A few months back, I was brought into a committee to help plan a conference and unify the team.  In one meeting I led, the first question I asked was “what is the central goal of this conference?”  From a dozen different people, I got a dozen different answers, which started a conversation about which was the true goal.  Realistically, none of them were the goal; they were action items to achieve the planning of the conference.  A little more discussion and disagreement led everyone to understand and identify with the main theme, and how their work contributed to it.  By getting the team talking, sometimes heatedly, about their one unifying goal, they were able to figure out how to work better to accomplish their tasks, and understood the impact that this event had on the organization and community.

Overcoming Challenging Meetings

So often we look at meetings with blinders on, seeing it as a narrow view of what we do. In fact, meetings should clarify the overarching plan for how you work.  There should be conflict, because there should be differing points of view.  There should be discussion, even raw and passionate, because it helps us to identify our “why.” This helps us solve problems together, and with trust.  If you’ve ever sat in a meeting and held back an opinion because you didn’t feel it mattered, then you were in the wrong kind of meeting.  In a productive meeting, everyone should be heard and all thoughts and opinions should matter, even if they don’t directly correlate with the direction that is being taken.  Trust is built on transparency and openness, not restraint and silence.

Wrapping Up

In innovative thinking, using conflict and failure as tools to brainstorm, identify problems, create solutions, and unify teams has been relatively successful.  You need to set up guidelines or rules of the road in order to make it productive and fair. However, stifling conflict and vilifying failure doesn’t get as many positive results.  Celebrating failure and promoting healthy conflict will boost your company’s innovative thinking. This leads to great ideas and even better solutions to the problems you work on.

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