To Innovate, View Conflict As Differences Containing Value

The first blog in this series, Conflict and Innovation, looked at how to make conflict productive by planning for conflict, knowing your options, and using conflict to learn. In this blog, we’ll look more closely at how to plan for conflict.


Conflict scholars talk about conflict as a value-neutral phenomenon, with value judgments like constructive or destructive determined by one’s response. The standard definition is not so value-free, however. Conflict is commonly defined as a situation in which two or more parties contend over something valued, with the intent of prevailing. And in that sense, prevailing means there are winners and losers.

This definition suggests real challenges for innovating leaders, teams, and organizations. Innovation is destabilizing by definition. It requires change and change is stressful. The fear of failure, threats to one’s security and well-being, and other fight-or-flight responses trigger stress behaviors. Parties contend over things they value. Some fight. Some resist. And numerous attempts to prevail creates conflict.

Leaders and teams who plan for conflict can use it to support innovation. One easy way is to think of conflict as differences that contain value. Then take steps to learn about and from those differences.

  • Talk about conflict as differences

Differences are natural. They stem from different experiences, training, ways of processing information, goals, and more. Talking about conflict as differences can diffuse negative energy because having differences is good. Differences prevent problem underconceptualization, a very serious shortcoming in many group efforts and one which leads to groupthink.

The kinds of things requiring innovation in government are multi-dimensional and complex. Surfacing and exploring different points of view is a way to talk about those dimensions, to manage that complexity. To talk about conflict as differences is to learn about the variety of the situation, and to understand the things people care about. View differences as having value, and you can transform conflict into a positive force for change.

  • Categorize differences

Conflict scholars talk about sources of conflict. Different schemes exist but some basics are relevant to government organizations and innovation. Conflicts occur over data, interests, relationships, and values. Structural conflict is a popular notion, and highly relevant. As your organization surfaces and talks about differences, see if you can categorize them in some way to facilitate the conversation, and action.

Data conflicts, for example, might be addressed by obtaining or clarifying data. Relationship conflicts might be addressed by clarifying roles and responsibilities, or by addressing a prior, unresolved interaction. Talking about conflict as differences and categorizing them provides a shared vocabulary – something which, itself, bridges differences – and suggests ways to constructively manage them.

  • Let differences teach

Innovation is a process of discovery – of learning what to do, and how to do it, to get a better result for a customer. If it were easy, it’d be done. So plan to learn, and let differences teach.

Assume each point of view contains value and plan to explore it. If you know I’m going to say, “We’ve tried that before and it won’t work!” you plan to say, “Tell me what we’ve tried and what happened.” Plan real conversations about what people know and you’ll learn things to do, and not do. Value the substantive lessons people provide and you’ll increase participants’ emotional commitments. Differences can teach, if you let them.

To transform conflict into a positive force for innovation, view conflict as differences containing value – and plan to learn from those differences.

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