The Challenge Conflict Presents to Creativity

This spring, I’m focusing some of my speaking and consulting on helping organizations who are in conflict, resolve it and prevent it from constricting practices like organizational transition, goal setting, and strategic planning. Unresolved conflict presents a lot of issues to organizations: lost productivity, damaged professional relationships, and – most germane to the work I do – compromises creative potential.

As a strong advocate for creativity, I’ve focused a lot in the past year on the circumstances that foster it. At least two, collaboration, and allyship/advocacy, suffer when conflict lies unresolved among coworkers or within a department seeking to change its ways. So I was pleased to see this exact issue raised by Roger Fisher and William Ury (1983) in their theory of principled negotiation. In their Getting to Yes, they identify four challenges to the creativity needed to generate a number of options for solutions. They go on to offer techniques by which to combat these issues. I’ll be contextualizing them for the realm of student leadership, and also providing some strategies to help students enact them.

Obstacle #1: Premature Decisiveness
Fisher and Ury find that premature decisiveness, or coming to a conclusion too early, can stifle creativity. The rush that so many of us often feel to solve a problem means that the first workable solution, or the one shared by the most vocal member of the group, gets enacted with little questioning. What’s more, this strategy rewards the fastest thinker, but not always the most thorough or nuanced one. The potential result? New problems rising from the ashes of old, because their underlying issues weren’t identified in the initial dash.

Fisher and Ury recommend combatting this particular creative challenge by “separating invention from evaluation.” That is to say, keeping the ideation process, where multiple ideas are put on the table, separate from the narrowing process. A lack of this separation often burdens brainstorming to the point of demotivation, as a “Devil’s Advocate” or “Negative Nakia/Niccolo” can shoot down ideas as they’re presented. When looking to a solution, Fisher and Ury recommend delineating, and then observing, four different stages and types of thinking:

  • Statement of the issue;
  • Analysis of said issue;
  • Consideration of general approaches; and
  • Identification of specific actions.

By keeping these elements of the process distinct, and honoring that practice even when challenged by others in the room, a few things happen. First and foremost, it prevents the ideation stage (listed third here) to operate independently from the judgment and narrowing stage, by design. An additional benefit: the potential to hear multiple sides of an issue is preserved. Rushing through that first step often silences testimonies that allow issues to be multidimensional.

TRY IT: If your group is challenged by fully hearing ideas from individuals, for whatever reason, seeking to make the ideation process anonymous may help. Creating a time period that allows multiple viewpoints to be shared, and for those viewpoints to be shared without any stigma that individuals may carry, can bring out thoughts and suggestions that alternate circumstances may not. The analog version of this could be done through a “Suggestion Box” or Post-It wall type practice, or you could use digital tools like Attentiv, Candor, or even a Google Drive document or form to let stakeholders submit and discuss ideas anonymously.

Obstacle #2: Intent to Narrow
Closely related to Obstacle #1, intent to narrow means that participants may come to idea generating spaces looking to quickly hone in on a solution, any solution at all, and adjourn. When I work through the Design Thinking model in my workshops, I caution against this mindset and seek to illuminate its dangers. The one that I tend to focus on is the possibility of freezing out other stakeholders. The model prevents this by placing a key step between Discovery (the moment where one identifies a problem) and Ideation (the generation of potential solution), called Interpretation.

Interpretation of a problem acts as a buffer, by creating a space to interrogate the issue at hand. I describe it to students as the questioning phase, encouraging them to wonder: “who do we need to talk to, to get a full view of the issue?” Put another way, combat the intent to narrow with an explicit directive to widen, first.

TRY IT: As groups are seeking to solve a problem, encourage them to present a list of stakeholders, populations, or affected offices/departments/parties that should be consulted before any solutions are generated. They might find that the ideas they were considering will have an adverse impact on others, or that their solution might create a new problem for someone else. Alternate versions of the design thinking model name the first step as “empathy,” rather than “discovery,” and it’s that principle that this practice is aimed at. When you rush to conclusions, who does that affect and how?

Obstacle #3: Win-Lose Orientation
When conflicts are attacked with a win-lose orientation, the seeds for later conflict are sowed. It minimizes the miles of middle ground that exist for mutually satisfactory solutions, instead focusing on a “winner take all” mentality that decimates the “opposite” side…who will still have to be worked with, regardless.

Fisher and Ury recommend reinforcing the idea of shared interests as conflict resolution gets underway. It reminds me of a strategy that I learned from friends at a workshop a few years back, about how to say no in a way that preserves relationships. In their words, declining an act while honoring the shared ground upon which it was made, can help shape action without seeming combative or needlessly contrary. As an example, consider for a moment the decision to cut board member positions without seeing if there are general members or new students interested in filling them. Pushing back on this proposal may look like, “I appreciate your desire to streamline the organization and I also like to keep things simple, but…” In this way, there is an island of common ground placed between the “win” and “lose” territory.

TRY IT: In a manner that has echoes of a prior step in Fisher and Ury’s model (focusing on interest rather than position), preface any movement on conflict with a discussion of needs. Not just what you want from the end result, but why. What informs that want. What the backstory is. This humanizes the two (or more!) sides of the debate, grounds what might seem like abstract demands in a context that is essential for making decisions. Prompt this conversation with requests for storytelling about how the idea came to pass, a more detailed testimony of who the organization serves, and even a frank conversation about where blindspots might lie: “who or what can you admit you’re not seeing?”

Obstacle #4: Abdication of Responsibility
In positions of conflict, it’s common for the party who believes they’re not causing a problem to yield responsibility, saying they “didn’t do anything,” “it’s not our fault,” or “why should we have to fix this?” But for the sake of organizational health, this can be a damaging mindset to perpetuate.

Fisher and Ury recommend combatting this mindset by thinking about potential solutions in a way that address and honor the needs of the other side. Then, craft a proposal for a conflict resolution that combines each party’s needs and wants. To briefly come back to obstacle #3, this is an added defense against win-lose thinking. The best scenario will address the needs of both sides; having the information to know what they think and need, can help you frame your own argument in a way that is most likely to go over well. This empathetic strategy can help mitigate some of the single-minded thinking that abdicating responsibility tends to perpetuate.

TRY IT: Prior to making proposals for solutions, have each side summarize what they believe the other side’s needs are. Then, allow each side to clarify what their needs are, encouraging conversation about where misunderstandings or misinterpretations may arise. This will require a strong implementation of Fisher and Ury’s first point of the theory (“Separate people from the problem”), but can be done civilly if the group in question adheres to ground rules of openness, civility, and focus on the task.

In summary, creativity can be hampered mightily in the face of conflict. But by working through these issues en route to new solutions, a landscape can be created where new ideas arise even – especially! – when leadership doesn’t always see eye to eye. By ensuring that the underlying needs of conflicting parties are clearly articulated, measures are put in place to ensure that ideas can be heard on their own merit, and that the requisite amount of time is taken to investigate an issue before solving it, some of the points of collision can be smoothed over, clearing a path to a future that looks quite different from the status quo.