This is a guest post by Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA, PMP, CSEP
For most engineers, conflict at work is something to be avoided. It’s about as desirable as spilling coffee on your pants before a big presentation or dealing with (yet another) paper jam. There’s an important difference, however, between conflict and most other office challenges: conflict is incredibly important. In fact, almost all innovative products and processes are the result of conflicts at work.
This leads us to two questions. Why is it that conflict is so important for innovation, and how can you approach conflict in a healthy way? In today’s article, I’ll tackle both important questions.
Why Is Conflict Important for Innovation?
Innovative ideas are, by definition, novel. To innovate is to depart in some significant way from the way things have been done before. For most individuals, it’s very difficult to depart from the ways things have been done in the past because it represents risk and uncertainty. We’re trained, particularly as engineers, to stick to process and avoid risk. Repeatability, control, and clarity are valued over all else. Beyond this, trying something new is hard. It takes time and effort, and frankly, most engineers aren’t sitting around with much in the way of extra time on their hands. As such, we stick to what’s tried and true, and rarely venture off the beaten path.
In order for innovation to occur, then, there needs to be some sort of disruption imposed on us. We need to be shaken out of our routines and put in positions where we must at least consider new ideas. More often than not, this happens when people work in teams, particularly diverse teams. Each individual may have their own established ideas and ways of working, but if those approaches conflict with those of others, then some sort of reconciliation will need to take place in order for the team to move forward productively. It is through this reconciliation that innovation happens: ideas get combined, processes get improved, and disparate elements get integrated to create something new.
Conflict with others creates forks in the road of your work where before there was only endless straight highway, and no reason to ever take an exit. Taking new roads and new directions pushes us into new territory and sets the scene for real innovation.
How Can You Keep Conflict Healthy?
Accepting that conflict is important for innovation drives us toward another important question: how can we keep conflict healthy? We’ve all been in relationships, both inside and outside of work, where conflict was destructive, rather than productive, and it can be a miserable experience. How, then, can we work to ensure that conflict is healthy?
Healthy conflict in the workplace is fueled by two important elements: a common goal and a focus on ideas rather than individuals.
In order for conflict to be healthy within a team, the team first needs to be aligned toward a common goal. If everyone is working toward the same ultimate end product or result, then conflicts that do arise will be less likely to be about “Where are we going?” and more likely to be about “What’s the best way to get there?” This is important because when a team is aligned, each individual on the team will be able to see one another as a partner, not an adversary. This will make it much less likely for conflict to devolve into (or be perceived as) ad hominem attacks.
This brings us to the next element of healthy conflict: a focus on ideas over individuals. This is more difficult, because it requires strong self-awareness and communication skills on the part of the individuals involved in the conflict. For conflict to be healthy, you need to keep laser-focused on the ideas and assumptions being discussed. The moment an individual’s character or personality is challenged is the moment conflict goes awry. It’s also important to be careful not to misinterpret challenges to your own ideas as challenges to you as a person. It’s all too easy to jump to the conclusion that you as a person are being targeted when your ideas are being dissected, which puts you into a defensive mode and paves the way for unhealthy conflict.
If you are looking to innovate and bring new ideas to the table, conflict will almost invariably be part of the process. Learning to embrace conflict, and ensuring you have healthy conflict with those around you, is an excellent first step toward becoming a more innovative engineer.
About Pat Sweet
Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA, PMP, CSEP, is a recognized expert in engineering management, productivity, and leadership. He is also the host of the popular Engineering & Leadership Podcast, a show dedicated to helping engineering leaders thrive. Download his free Engineering Leadership e-book, Engineering Leadership 101 – Practical Insights for Becoming an Engineering Leader at Any Stage, to grow your leadership skills today.
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To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success