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.

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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Matthew Garlipp

Very good post, Lou! One of the only organizational constants is change — so being prepared for and ready to embrace change and conflict is essential!

Lou Kerestesy

Thank you, Matthew. My next blog will focus more on conflict prevention and response techniques. Thoughts and suggestions are always welcome!


Great points! Unfortunately, a lot of people are averse to or unable to handle conflict. My area is full of conflict-aversion, even when it is not personal. My supervisor has “go along to get along” attitude that is deleterious. He gets upset when I don’t go along with things and praised me for retracting my opposition to a change when I become convinced that the revised change was good. After one meeting, he criticized the intellectual conflict I stirred up, even though the team leader took no offense and thought it was useful.

Then, there are the narcissists. They take conflict personally. If you disagree with their perfect selves, you are ipso facto criticizing them by saying they are imperfect. This is an intolerable situation to them. Unfortunately, this is on the increase in our society. The examples are too numerous to count.

Lou Kerestesy

Thank you, C. You identify two challenging situations. In the first, it might help to reframe conflict to differences, or to questions/inquiry, seeking clarity, etc. This might reduce the anxiety that a conflict is about to break out. If you can, establish a practice that team leads/presenters ask for differing views – “What do others see?” “What am I missing?” “What will work?” “What might go wrong?” If the person presenting asks for reactions, it might feel safer. You could try making your points in the form of a question, then wait to see if others reply. Seeing a conversation unfold might reduce anxiety.

You might find it easier to talk to those who take conflict personally, although the interactions can be more….energetic… 🙂 The simplest thing to do is to key in on words they use and ask them to say more. They’ll appreciate the opportunity to speak and elaborate, you’ll get more information you can use to do something with, and it can have the effect of reducing energy around the issue. Often a clear path or opportunity emerges to address the concerns they voice, along these lines – “So based on what you’re saying, what if we did this…”

Sometimes devices like these work in a group setting; sometimes they work better 1:1 or in a much smaller conversation. Sometimes nothing works! But the rest of the team will see you trying and that counts for something.

Laura Free

Great post! I’m also interested to hear ideas from others on how to bring conflict into the open. Sometimes, a change we’re implementing internally gets general nods around the room, but issues arise once the meeting is over. As a staff member, I’m not sure how to create an environment where open conflict is okay and even embraced, because it can help us arrive at a better solution.

Lou Kerestesy

Great questions, Laura. The situation you describe is common – and can be dangerous.

The first thing to decide is whether the situation is one in which openness is unwelcome, or one in which conversation is welcome but the group doesn’t know how to start. I offer some ideas that might address both situations, in the post to C above.

I worked once with a large team whom I KNEW had opinions about an important matter they faced. The group dynamics were conducive to discussion, but no one would speak. I printed the question at the top of some blank pieces of paper, put them on tables at which I seated the entire team (tables of 5-7), and asked everyone to write their thoughts down in response to the question. I further asked people to circulate their responses to others at the table and invited everyone to comment on comments. We did some table-top discussions of the big ideas but the real value was what I saw when I read ALL the pages. I culled almost two dozen ideas in response to a question I couldn’t get people to say “Boo” about. Sometimes it helps to write and then talk.

Good luck!