Must Innovation Cause Conflict?

Conflict is common in human endeavor, and innovation is no exception. Today’s blog launches a short series on conflict and innovation – about why conflict occurs during innovation, how it can help or hurt, and how to manage it productively.


The word conflict comes from words that mean to strike, or strike together. A common definition is a situation in which two or more parties contend over something valued, with the intent of prevailing. The goal is to win, conquer, or otherwise prove superior. There are other ways to view and think about conflict that we’ll examine, but first let’s look at why innovation produces conflict.

If innovation means doing something different to get a better outcome, and if doing something different means change – conflict is unavoidable. Innovation might change an organization’s customers, service offerings, customer interactions, ways of performing tasks and jobs – big things. Important things. It can breed conflict between the current way of doing things and new ways; between people who stand to gain by change and people who stand to lose; between whole organizations; between values and experiences.

Innovation is destabilizing, by definition, so it’s also resisted for good reason – which is where conflict can emerge. Trust. Security. Fear of failure. Stress related to learning new knowledge or skills, or a new role. These are basic fight-or-flight, approach-avoidance responses.

So what to do? If you’re responsible for leading an innovation effort, or participating in one, plan for conflict, know your options, and use conflict to learn.

  • Plan for Conflict

Set the expectation that conflict will occur. Talk about how you’ll talk about it when it surfaces, and adopt the attitude that conflict can be more than OK – it can be useful. Acknowledge that conflict occurs because people care about things, and encourage constructive conversations to illuminate the caring over the conflict. Provide a vocabulary and some simple processes for talking about conflict – and practice them in staff meetings and brownbag lunches.

  • Know Your Options

There’s a range of things one can “do” about conflict. Preventing conflict anticipates its emergence and addresses the issues before the conflict forms. Managing conflict applies positive means for handling them once they’ve emerged. Resolving conflicts actively engages participants in the joint discovery of a solution that satisfies interests. If this isn’t your area of expertise, be honest and seek assistance – perhaps even from your team. The most unproductive thing to do is to do nothing.

  • Use Conflict to Learn

Conflict presents opportunities to learn. Parties might learn about one another; mutual interests; values; the complexity or a problem or the sophistication of a solution. They might even learn about themselves. Deliberately explore the relation between substantive issues (a new service offering) and feelings about them (“We’ve never done that!”) to deepen and broaden individual and group knowledge about things that matter.


Must innovation cause conflict? Yes. Must that be a bad thing? No. Plan for conflict, know your options, and use conflict to learn – and conflict can help you do something different to get a better result, for all involved.

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