What Do Conflict & Innovation have in Common?

A number of people have asked me how I began designing Visioning Labs and I often explain that it was really working in the field of conflict resolution for ten years that prepared me for this work now. In my earlier work with Sustained Dialogue and the Dalai Lama’s peace foundation our work consisted of creating safe spaces for people and communities in conflict to come together and imagine and create alternative possible futures. In order to do that, we had to know ourselves how to design those spaces and how to catalyze those difficult conversations.

I recently met an entrepreneur, Jason Gore, who has explicitly combined conflict resolution and innovation in his business model, From Conflict to Innovation. Jason lives in Boulder, Colorado and has worked with clients like Banana Republic, AT&T and the U.S. Army and Air Force as well as smaller, design-centric organizations. I was curious to see how Jason incorporates conflict transformation into his innovation and ideation work. The answer: he sees conflict as the catalyst to innovation.

Q. Who is the most unusual client you’ve ever worked with?

A. One of my favorite times was when I spent 5 days facilitating a retreat for the Burning Man organization, then worked at a big pharma company trying to figure out how to get their products to be used by the right people and not prescribed in situations where it won’t be effective, and then worked with executives from oil company wanting to go green. All in a two week period.

Q. You call your work “from conflict to innovation”. What’s the link?

A. When many of us think of innovation, we may imagine an individual genius or a small group of passionate, creative folks. Innovation can happen that way, but from what I’ve seen, innovation most often arises out of dilemmas–an insolvable problem, especially when there is more energy due to disagreement. The conflict or pain point, when handled through typical patterns of problem-solving, usually results in a proposed compromise, which doesn’t really meet any of the parties’ underlying needs. Frankly, people don’t like to change unless there is a need. And big organizational changes take a long time, so it’s through individual conflict that companies can actually change more readily.  And they need a structured process to do this, because frankly, we don’t handle conflict well and we aren’t the most creative problem solvers. Most people avoid conflict or handle it poorly. This makes sense since the only training that most of us have received in dealing with conflict is from our personal experiences in dysfunctional home and business environments. And so we avoid the problem or we compromise. Compromise is boring, shuts down innovation, and leaves a lot of value on the table.

Q. How do you help companies innovate?

A. The way groups solve problems has a tendency to kill innovation. Let’s look at a typical meeting where a problem arises. Usually, the problem will be discussed for a while—complaints, ideas, contrary opinions, and a whole mess of other thoughts will be put on the table in a disorganized way. In frustration and impatience, one person will typically propose a solution.  This is not necessarily a good thing, because the first solution presented usually doesn’t meet everyone’s interests and may not be that creative. In cultures that don’t have strong hierarchical boundaries, what happens next is that the idea is shot down for why it won’t work. The group will then return to waffling until a new idea is presented—the second idea usually meets needs a bit better… but will still be shot down. This pattern continues—where ideas are presented unilaterally until one idea meets most people’s interests and is tweaked until everyone can say OK.

But let’s look at this from an objective viewpoint. The process that was used to create the solution above was simply throwing out ideas until everyone could say yes, and the process stopped. This almost guarantees a solution that will be minimally acceptable by all parties. There is very little opportunity in this conversation to create a breakthrough. Plus, it’s very time-consuming and typically degrades trust and relationship.

There’s a better way, and it’s by handling conflict and differences of opinion as an opportunity to learn and change. I work with a lot of VERY smart people. And when they disagree, they are disagreeing for very valid reasons. Usually, these differences of opinion are seen as points of conflict and people fight to have their voice heard. There’s a lot of talking, not much listening, not much creative thinking, and often a lot of damaged relationships.

To me, compromise—at least compromise early in the process—is a killer of innovation. What I do is bring a structured process that accesses all the brilliance in a room in a time-efficient way. Any innovation process is better than none at all. I use a process which is founded on the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project and the Collaborative Way. And it’s one that is easy to teach people, so that my clients learn how to innovate on their own—without a facilitator in the room.

Q. I loved what you told me about the “next step” plan. Can you share with us some examples of when you’ve used that with clients?

A. People tend to want to make big decisions quickly because it relieves the internal tension of uncertainty. I often hear, “Let’s just decide so that we can move on.” So people argue over big decisions, rather than just focusing on figuring out the next step—often there is a “baby step” that needs to be taken before a big decision can be made. And in this case, all the concern, tension, and arguing over the big decision is a waste of time.

The brain is amazing, but it has limited processing capability around decision making and strategy (which is largely in the pre-frontal cortex). In our complex lives, we have lots of decisions to make so this capacity is constantly taxed. So, our brain tends to look for a solution quickly so that we can focus on other things.  Once we have that strategy “in mind,” a different part of the brain can execute the strategy and thus free up space in the pre-frontal cortex.

In business, it’s the same thing:

  • Two executives fighting over what customer group to focus on—the price-conscious mid-tier, or price insensitive high-tier. The next step was simply to have focus groups with each customer group and learn more about them, but they were so caught up in arguing that it was hard to take this next step. Once we did, we learned a lot more about the customer groups and the executives realized that they had been arguing over the wrong thing—what the customers wanted was the same product but had different risk tolerances. The company was able to offer a 100% reliability guarantee (which included overnight replacement if any issues arose.) It was only purchased by the price-insensitive customers, and thus the same product continued to satisfy both customer groups. A creative solution arose out of taking the next “baby step.”
  • Another company was debating whether to drop their current insurance provider and find a new one. They argued and argued. The next step was simply to interview other insurance providers. When they did, they learned that another provider offered A LOT more for the same price. The choice then became obvious and no one argued against switching.
  • A third group of executives were arguing over risk management criteria—when to offer financing to customers and when not to. It was a big argument without much data to support any decision. Instead of arguing, we just created two store-based tests with different criteria. We learned quickly which one worked and which one didn’t.

In all of these cases, I simply moved the attention from the big decision to the next step.

Q. You mentioned that you do rapid prototyping with ideas. What does that look like?

A. People love their own ideas, and for many innovators, it’s very easy to get excited about the big picture idea and what’s possible. From that place, it’s hard to test our assumptions. My advice is to work backwards. Start at the end, and go backwards to the beginning.

One of my past clients was developing a new consumer product to be sold through late-night television ads. He was focusing on product design and raising $100k to manufacture the first shipment. I redirected him to work on the marketing and advertising before placing the first manufacturing order. Working with the expertise of my business partner at the time, we spent $5k, developed a TV commercial, and aired it 15 times, even though we didn’t have the product available yet. This was an ethical concern that we discussed deeply. He anticipated 200 orders.  His intent was that when people called, we would explain that there was a problem with manufacturing and the product was not available, and in earnest, offer to ship them a free product when it was available. We decided that this was well-worth the learning that we would achieve. To our dismay, we had only 3 calls from all 15 TV ads. Certainly we could improve the ad, but at this point we knew that we had just saved $100k in manufacturing costs because we had been walking down a dead-end street.

Q. You’ve worked with some of the world’s biggest companies. If you were to boil the challenges most companies face into one sentence, what would it be? [This may be an unfair question]

A. Ok, this is a bit of an unfair question, but there are two things I do see across the board.

1)   As companies grow and as managers climb the corporate ladder, there is a lot more incentive to manage risk and ensure smooth operations, than there is to innovate. So, the status quo and doing things well is much more important than doing the right thing and implementing change. Managers get bogged down in doing what worked in the past and change becomes increasingly difficult. Organizations need to learn how to make failure OK and let risk be something that is honored, appreciated, and considered. If failure is not OK then the risk/reward of innovation is simply not sufficient to inspire innovation.

2)   In conflict, people lose their curiosity. Interpersonally, staying curious and empathizing with other’s points of view is one of the fundamental ingredients of being able to move from conflict to innovation.

Q. When you first start working with a client, what are the first three questions you ask?

A. Each client is different, but here is what comes to mind:

1) What do you really care about?

  • If money and resources were abundant in your life, e.g. if you won the lottery, what would you do with your time?
  • What do you do in your free time now?
  • What’s really important to you—if someone else was running the company, what would you insist that they do or don’t do?

2) What measurable outcomes do you want to achieve? In other words, what measurable and objective goals can you create to track your success? Sometimes, internal goals and measurements suffice, e.g. I want to be a 3 out of 10 on stress levels.

3) What will it feel like when you achieve your goal? How will you know internally what a 3 out of 10 feels like? I ask them to take me to that future time and place, and what shows up is what is behind their goal—what they really want. It usually has the flavor of, “I’d be able to relax,” “I’d know I did my best,” “I’d know that I’m good enough.” Ironically, that’s the real goal, so I start working with them on that goal in parallel to the measureable outcomes.

Q. You’re about to take off on a two-week vision quest. What is that? And what do you hope will come of this experience?

A. A vision quest is when, under the guidance and support of a vision quest leader, individuals go and sit in the woods for 4-8 days in a circle about 10-20 feet in diameter—usually without a tent and in my case only with a home-made lemonade to drink (no food for 8 days.)

My goal was simply to learn how to be present, listen, and be able to direct my attention without it feeling like work or effort. Really listening to someone seems to take a lot of energy—staying focused and attentive is work. I look forward to the day that putting my attention on something is easeful.

The vision quest was a big step in the right direction. And I think this is more of a journey than a destination—I’m convinced that I’ll be working on improving my presence for the rest of my life.

Q. Anything else you wished I’d asked?

A. There are a lot of other aspects to the tools that I bring. I want to mention two bits of advice.

1)   Separate the person from the problem. Be hard on the problem, soft on the person. We tend to collapse this and be hard on both the person and the problem. The key is to build trust and relatedness with the person so that you can find an innovative solution together.

2)   Figure out what the priorities and interests of all the parties are before problem solving. We often try to solve the problem, before we even understand what we are solving for.

I go into a lot of depth in these two subjects in my book—Conflict to Innovation—which I am in the draft stages of. I am also hosting a monthly meeting at my house in Boulder, Co. If people are interested in coming, I invite them to check out my website and send me an email.

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