Innovation and Conflict – Conflict Style


Innovation and conflict go hand-in-hand. But if we turn to conflict resolution models to help us innovate, we might find they need a bit of innovating, themselves.

A good example is the idea of conflict modes, or conflict style. Recent blogs introduced the very well-known Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode model, shown below. It gives us two basic ways to behave (the two axes) and shows what happens when we exhibit those behaviors in different combinations (the five modes). The modes imply different outcomes, and we can easily think about what we want to do to achieve a certain result.

Conflict Modes


Note that the model focuses on needs. This is perfectly sensible because people have needs and needs are the very things people perceive as at risk in a conflict. If we define conflict as a situation in which two or more parties contend over something valued with the intent of prevailing, the model frames behaviors in a clear and useful way.

The model needs a little help when applied to innovation, however. If conflict is about surfacing differences to find and create value, the model leaves us scratching our heads. And if you try applying it to a situation in which many people are interacting – an innovation team, for example, trying to manage many differences to produce value for the customer – the application gets confusing.

If we focus on learning, we can quickly clear up the difficulty. Innovation is a process of discovery – of learning what to do, and how to do it, to get a better result for a customer. So if we make learning an innovation objective, the model is useful in new ways.

  • Assertiveness: Think of this as focusing on what your want to learn, and teach. Add your learning objectives to the group’s. Offer your teaching objectives to the group. You can do so gently or energetically, but always respectfully – of others and of yourself.
  • Cooperativeness: Think of this as pooling and combining learning and teaching objectives. A team of two people will have a few that overlap. A team of 10 or 20 will have a LOT that overlap. Array them so everyone can literally see and talk about them to choose.
  • Avoiding: What if you tried being agnostic about a thing to be learned? Can you avoid taking a stance before the lessons are in. How about proposing the team learn “safer” lessons enroute to learning the tougher ones, thereby avoiding direct conflict early on.
  • Accommodating: What you really want to accede to is learning, not people. It’s worth maintaining harmony in the group until evidence is in, rather than assert you know what the evidence will show. Innovation is about learning, right? And learning usually connects things we knew to things we didn’t, so that we understand differently.
  • Compromising: Resources are scarce, and everyone will likely compromise on something – which ideas to try, how much time to take, how to staff a work team, etc. The only thing the group shouldn’t compromise on is what it needs to learn. The value in innovation is in what you learn to do differently.
  • Competing: Set up fun competitions to test ideas or hypotheses. Bet a cup of coffee or a bag of candy on the outcome. Compete with yourself to learn something the opposite of what you believe, just to see what happens! The only rules are respect of each other, and the integrity to accept the evidence honestly.
  • Collaborating: This is considered the optimal space when conflict is about prevailing. If conflict is about differences containing value, however, many things a team learns will expand options and produce win/win outcomes. Even those vested in existing ways of doing things, those who don’t want to change, can find a “win” in something they learn that improves means to the only end that matters – the mission.

Whether we lead a team or participate as a member, we can reframe conflict-as-prevailing to conflict-as-learning simply by how we talk and act. That might not be a traditional mode or conflict style…but it’s got class!

Lou Kerestesy is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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