October 7, 2019

Creative-Combat-Mode: Using conflict to inject energy into the development process

What does creativity have to do with software development? A whole lot, actually. Software development is about creating something that no one else has created or at least perfecting a process to a degree never achieved before. If your solution is already available from someone or somewhere else, then why are you wasting your time on it? If you are developing something new, you are being creative and what's the essential ingredient for creativity? Conflict!

At least, that's what Linda Hill, Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, would have us believe. In her opinion, you cannot achieve innovation without challenging the status quo. Linda is an abrasion evangelist, her mission is to eliminate the cozy boltholes that allow complacency to fester in favor of environments that foster confrontation and provocation.

Sound like a nightmare? If so, perhaps our conditioning is to blame. We have come to believe that the workplace should be a place of harmony, of unreserved support and recognition of our genius. We have ascribed to the notion that to achieve creative zen we must be cosseted away from such irritations as meetings and bureaucratic processes. We must have just the right blend of emotional approbation and physical comfort to facilitate the unburdening of our prodigious talents.

Try to think of a successful band that hasn't encountered and even engendered strife and conflict - near impossible. The Beatles, Metallica, the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath…who and where would they be without their inner turmoil? Conflict was the conduit to their creative success, channeling tensions into their music produced their best content.

Passion fuels creativity and there is nothing more incendiary than having your passion challenged. Most of us already work in agile groups. Agile means collaboration and because we are only human, collaboration inevitably means conflict. We are taught to believe that conflict must be avoided and eliminated where it manages to creep in.  But this conflict is a clear demonstration of our passion for our work. The key is to reframe these conflicts from something stress-inducing to something that fuels our fervor.

Respectfully and generously agreeing to disagree is freeing. Not having to tiptoe around delicate sensibilities when you know something could be done better or easier and you want to share how for the greater good. Contributing freely without judgment is liberating. We should reward those who are not afraid to say ‘I’m stuck’ or ‘I can see another way.’

Software development is a rapid-fire, reactive while at the same time proactive process. We sometimes feel we have too many balls in the air to stop and explain our logic; too fearful of distractions to step back and listen to the rationale of colleagues. But embracing these fears could be the key to our success. Developers need conflict like Ozzy needs Sharon. It ain't always pretty but it is an essential ingredient for growth.

There are caveats. French Ski equipment manufacturer Salomon introduced creative abrasion into their creative process. Asked about the experiment after a few months, one of their VPs replied, “Well...we have the abrasion part down pat!”

Rushing to introduce a deliberately disruptive process like creative abrasion without fully understanding it is a mistake.  Excessive friction, the wrong kind of friction, or badly timed friction can lead to disaster. There is an optimal level of provocation and conflict. The aim is to agitate processes and use the energy it generates to create a kind of forcing function. Pushing ourselves to think harder, better, clearer, entertaining alternative hypotheses, throwing our own hypotheses into the hat - this is empowerment. This is what gets your pulse racing. Isn't this why you got into the game?

So how is it done?

Lucky for us, Jerry Hirshberg, founder, and president of Nissan Design International (NDI) has done the leg work. During his tenure at Nissan Automotive, he used what he called ‘Creative Abrasion’ to shift dynamics up a gear. His thinking was "sometimes the right person for the job is two people." His theory was that pairing people with differing processes, skills, and/or mindsets creates an incredibly innovative environment. These “divergent pairs,” in Hirshberg’s opinion, brought about some of Nissan's greatest innovations. And divergent pairs is just one abrasion Hirshberg recommends as likely to create an innovative environment conducive to success. In his book, The Creative Priority, Hirshberg outlines these ploys to achieve optimal friction-return:

  • Embracing the Dragon: Introducing artificial constraints to provoke creative resolutions.
  • Creative questions: Asking provocative questions that reframe an issue and ultimately unearth the solution.
  • Productive polarity: Igniting creativity through a culture of constructive conflict.
  • Blurring discipline boundaries: Removing our invented taxonomies for knowledge to open new possibilities for information discovery.

Trying out Hirshberg's process of accord through discordant agitation may be worth your effort. If you find yourself stuck in a loop or in an ingenuity slump, it may be a means of rediscovering your creativity on-switch.  Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone and into a melee might infuse your work with new energy, and help you find the areas of intersection between great ideas: yours and others. And like any melee, if the conditions are right and everybody sticks to the rules, it’s gonna be a whole lotta fun!