Why Conflict Can Be Just What Your Business Needs to Drive Innovation

Oct 12, 2017
7 Min Read
Jeff DeGraff Interview - Why Conflict Can Be Just What Your Business Needs to Drive Innovation

Jeff DeGraff Interview - Why Conflict Can Be Just What Your Business Needs to Drive Innovation


In today’s tumultuous world, many people will call themselves grateful if they have a peaceful, harmonious workplace.

But Jeff DeGraff, whose advice has been sought by business innovators such as Microsoft, General Electric and Pfizer, says the problem with a placid workplace is that it’s an innovation killer. Too many workers getting along because they all think alike – or don’t want to upset the status quo – isn’t the way to generate new processes and products.

“The death of innovation is apathy,” says DeGraff, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “One of the first signs is that people won’t engage in different ideas – they go along with the company line.”

That doesn’t mean that companies should encourage employees to go at one another tooth and nail. But it is important that teams have members with different personalities, cultures and ideas to keep creative juices flowing and prevent companies from getting in a rut.

The proof that such a strategy works is that there are “about 30 places on the planet that produce the most intellectual property and what they all have in common is an extremely diverse workforce,” he says.

DeGraff promotes the idea that it’s critical to stir the workplace pot, as evidenced from the title of his new book, “The Innovation code: The Creative Power of Constructive Conflict.” At the same time, he stresses that he doesn’t want chaos to be never-ending.

It’s “constructive conflict,” he says, that is the most valuable, an atmosphere where people with different ideas “collide with one another on a regular basis.”

Among his other suggestions to harness the power of diverse ideas and foster better innovation:

  1. Keep a deep bench. Companies need to be more flexible when it comes to employee assignments, forming and disbanding teams based on the need and the individual strengths of team members. If companies can create a culture of constructive conflict, then “positive deviance” becomes the norm and teams embrace the idea of change and being more agile in the future. “Innovation is not an amateur sport,” DeGraff says. “You need to put people in the room who have real expertise – but diverse expertise.”
  2. Embrace failure. “Whether you are 8-years-old or 80-years-old, you’re going to have a failure cycle anytime you try something new,” he says. More companies need to “fail often, fail early and fail off-Broadway,” which means experimenting in small ways – and away from the world stage, he says.
  3. Don’t fall into the trend trap. Just as in fashion, innovation can be trendy. For example, pundits often cite one innovator – such a technology guru – as the most innovative. But the next year the artistic genius is touted as the most innovative. “There is no one single approach to innovation that will always come out on top,” he says. “There is no overriding trend you can rely on.” The key is figuring out what you can’t do yourself and then bringing the right people on board to do them.
  4. Create a shared vision. Even though conflict among team members can generate better ideas, it needs to be clear that everyone is headed toward the same goal, such as making more money or becoming more efficient. By having shared values and practices, the various teams have a “shared sense of destiny,” which helps them see the change as positive, not stressful, he explains.
  5. Don’t fear the unknown. When an organization begins a new project, it cannot be predicted how it will end. There may need to be dramatic changes along the way, but true innovation rarely happens within the lines.
  6. Don’t demand consensus too early. Too many organizations try to build buy-in across departments from the beginning with the thought that everyone needs to be on the same page from the first day. But forcing people to agree can dampen innovation. “You can’t have astounding synthesis, hybrid solutions or develop a gee-whiz science fair winning gizmo without some competition,” he says. “Consensus should come as a last step, not a first step.”

It’s estimated that the failure rate of new products is around 40% (the failure rate of 80% is seen as an urban myth), and Nielsen data estimates that only 15% of consumer packaged goods that launch in the U.S. today will be around in two years. The cost for launching a new product has been cited as high as $71 million, meaning that the commitment to innovation is fraught with risk – but that the risk of not innovating may be greater. Explaining such a business landscape can help spur teams to better accept change and different ideas in order to drive innovation.

“There’s two things that every organization needs. The first is to survive, and that means maintaining predictive practices. The second is to grow, and that’s an attractive thing when you think about it,” DeGraff says. “What drives us to grow is our feeling of incompleteness. There’s something very attractive about having a new way to grow.”

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