Conflict and Innovation

By Chris Chittenden

Many people abhor conflict and would do pretty much anything to avoid it. Others engage in conflict as an exercise in stamping their authority within a relationship and seek to win at the other's expense.

Most people do not see opportunity in conflict, mainly because they are so caught up in the negative emotions associated with it. However, we believe conflict can provide us with a unique chance to engage the world in a new way. Let us explain.

When we find ourselves in a conflict situation we are normally defending a stance we see as being important in life. Often that position relates to the way we think things should be and in the heat of conflict we rarely question the validity of that view.

A conflict normally shows up as an interruption to the normal flow of our life and is normally accompanied by strong emotional responses. The opportunity here, which we often miss, is that through these interruptions we can question the way in which we see things.

So what is the link with innovation? Innovation arises when we become a different observer of a situation. We often find ourselves in conflict when one of more of our beliefs, values or ideas, many of which we have never questioned, are violated. If we are willing to stand back and ask ourselves, "Why do I see things the way I see them and why do others see them differently?" we may well find something we have never questioned is not so absolute after all.

By recognising there is more than one way to view a situation, we have the opportunity to explore the differences. We can put aside the need to be right and in the differences look for ways to enhance our approach or even find a completely new way of doing things. The result is a better way to deal with conflict and the potential to engage in conversations that may lead to new and powerful ways of observing situations leading to original and innovative ideas. Things we had never seen as possible.

Often, truly great innovation springs from people who have had a fundamental shift in their mindset. For example, one of the pioneers of our work Fernando Flores developed some of the key basic ideas when he was jailed as a political prisoner after the coup in Chile in the 1970s. The elected president had been murdered and the government overthrown. He could have sat there raging at the injustice of his situation and seeking to get even, but he didn't. Rather he asked a fundamental question - "Why is that human beings can treat other in such a way?" From that basis he began to formulate ideas about what it is to be human and sought to find ways in which human beings could live together better.

Stepping back to look at potential conflict in this way is not easy. It requires a fundamental belief about the world that we are all unique individuals who see the world from our own perspective. We need to understand that no one individual has exclusive access to the "truth". Even knowing this will not ensure we act from that belief. Most of us have habitually viewed the world from the perspective that what we see is the way it is and most of the time we continue to do this without even noticing that we do. The result of this way of observing is to believe if others do not see things the way we do that they must be wrong. Setting this view aside and admitting we do not have all the answers is the first step to creating innovation from conflict.

So how is conflict being handled in your organisation? Is it being suppressed or avoided? If so, chances are there is hidden resentment, which will be having a significant impact on your results.

Are differences seen as something to be fought over? If so, you may be missing opportunities to build the competitiveness of your organisation.

If you are seeking to be more effective in the way you do business, look to the areas of disagreement and you might find what you are looking for.

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© 2001 Chris Chittenden