Conflict: Great Catalyst for Creativity and Innovation

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Mary Kay did it when she combined selling and nurturing to create a cosmetics empire.

Apple does it when they combine creativity with discipline to out-innovate everyone.

And our forefathers combined the seemingly competing ideals of freedom and responsibility to forge a nation.

The ability to assimilate conflicting ideas has been the invisible underpinning behind some of the greatest advances of all time. Best-selling author Jim Collins refers to it as “the genius of the AND.” His research reveals that leaders who can embrace paradox (low cost AND high quality, change AND stability, short term AND long term) are more successful than those who “yield to the tyranny of the ‘or.'”

From an intellectual perspective, most of us would agree that combining conflicting perspectives can create a better whole. But what sounds good in theory isn’t always easy to practice.

Case in point: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams – whom many say represent the original liberal vs. conservative debate – came together brilliantly to write the Declaration of Independence. But they then spent the next five decades arguing over political differences. When Jefferson beat out Adams in his bid for a second term as president, Adams was so angry that he refused to attend Jefferson’s inauguration.

Both men passed away on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day after birth of the country they founded. Rumor has it that the last words John Adams uttered were “Thomas Jefferson.” Demonstrating a universal truth, the people who disagree with you can have a profound impact on your life.

But that’s kind of the point. Jefferson’s and Adams’ differences didn’t make their lives easier, but they made our country better.

It was their very conflicts that brought forth a new form of government during a time when people didn’t even think that was possible.

There are basically three potential responses to conflict:

Stalemate: Either/or thinking 101. Both sides believe they’re right, nobody gives and inch and nothing gets done. Exhibit A: the healthcare debate.

Compromise: A kinder gentler approach, but it’s really just either/or thinking 102.

Compromise is predicated on the belief that we can’t have both ideals, so we have to whittle away at them. Compromise isn’t sustainable over the long haul because it waters down our best ideas, and it breeds resentment and contempt (as anyone forced to compromise will attest).

Innovation: The Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Mary Kay, Apple model in which leaders say, “We’re not going to choose between our ideals; we’re going to combine them, and we’re going to create something amazing.”

Our differences aren’t really the problem; it’s our inability to manage them. Conflict can actually be a catalyst for creativity.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a workplace issue, a personal problem or a political challenge, when the same perspectives come together, it’s comfortable and easy. But you rarely create anything different than what you’ve already got. Nobody ever created greatness hanging around with a bunch of clones.

But for people and organizations who are willing to wade through the messy process of assimilating seemingly conflicting perspectives, the sky’s the limit.

Conflict isn’t the problem; conflict is where you find the seeds of greatness.

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, syndicated columnist, business consultant and keynote speaker.  Her newest book The Triangle of Truth was cited by 800 CEO READ as “a blueprint for how smart people can get better at everything.”  What a short video intro.