Innovation From Directed Dissent?

Omid Aschari
Omid Aschari

What is constructive dissent and what is destructive conflict?

Aschari: Unlike conflict, dissent is constructive. The attempt to deal with complex subject matter is directed toward a common goal: a solution to a common problem or making a decision in common. In these cases, no one questions collaboration. Conflict, however, considers the solution only from an individual viewpoint. It quickly leads to a destructive attitude that often results in a breakdown of the business relationship.

What is then the difference between constructive dissent and mediation?

Aschari: Mediation begins when a conflict already exists. It seeks to lead the conflicting parties back to a constructive dialog. A dissent-based discussion, however, assumes from the very beginning that all participants in the discussion are interested in a common solution. I recommend a moderator here – someone to ensure that this approach doesn’t get lost. In this respect, a dissenting discussion is a type of mediation that guards against the materialization of personal conflicts. It requires an increased awareness of group dynamics and the ability to direct discussions spontaneously. During individual conversations before the decision-making process and even during ongoing conversations if needed, the moderator must asses each participant correctly, build up a relationship with each one, and obtain a binding promise from each to adhere to specific rules during the process.

How much does dissent benefit innovation?

Aschari: Dissent fosters innovation because it allows diversity. In today’s knowledge society, innovations arise more and more frequently from an awareness that apparently conflicting characteristics are related. As a basic principle, the existence of various viewpoints fosters alertness of new types of phenomena. Good, visionary ideas have a better chance for survival in a dissent-based discussion because they are challenged. Contesting such ideas in a sophisticated manner leads to a better understanding of their potential. It’s a fundamental principle of dissenting discussions that once an idea has been presented, the group must listen to it and deal with it responsibly and respectfully.

Innovations and inventions often arise abruptly from daily situations, either as the sudden inspiration of an individual or as a best practice. Are there methods that support such coincidences?

Aschari: Yes, there are practices that help employees expand the horizon of their knowledge, to look at old problems in new ways, and to break out of outdated patterns for solutions. These three requirements create the most important foundation for creative work. I also recommend that such employees be entrusted with a problem they have never before faced. This approach frees them from preconceived opinions. A good discussion of a problem can occur when the abilities of the participants seem irrelevant in the context of the problem. A type of thinking formed by another subject can lead to new ways of solving problems. Ideas with the potential for innovation often arise in an environment that does not sanction failures. As numerous studies have shown, most innovations generally developed out of activity. Geniuses like Picasso, da Vinci, or the physicist Richard Feynmann did not have a hit rate any higher than that of their professional colleagues. But they were more productive and thus produced more success – and failure. The greatest error appears to be sheer inactivity.

Positive thinking fosters brainstorms. It provides the courage to try out visions that so-called experts regard as impracticable. That’s what happened to Burt Rutan, a test pilot and design engineer for airplanes. He developed the Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without refueling. This example shows how important it is to include lateral thinkers in the innovation process.
There are also methods to enhance creativity, such as the morphological box developed by the Swiss astrophysicist, Fritz Zwicky. This method views the individual aspects of a product or service in new contexts. The extreme or extension technique is another method. It modifies or extends the original problem until new solutions are found.

Are compromises without open conflict counterproductive for innovations?

Aschari: In fact, compromises are not that good for decisions that have far-reaching consequences. In my opinion, we must distinguish between bad and good compromises. A team that is ready for compromise right from the beginning faces the danger of reaching a decision too quickly. Doing so represses the team intelligence that can be leveraged in the clash of opinions. Paradoxically, many upper managers display a great deal of readiness to compromise when making important decisions just to avoid unpleasant discussions. But mature consensus that can truly support a decision arises only when various viewpoints are represented from the very beginning.

Doesn’t a company make itself vulnerable when it reveals its decision-making process for innovations in front of external parties?

Aschari: This risk is actually always present, so it’s appropriate to have external parties sign a confidentiality agreement that covers the minutes of the meetings they attend. But most important, the interests of the external parties must be revealed in advance and in an amicable way. No ambiguity that might later cause misunderstandings may exist.

How can you avoid having dissent lead to disgruntled employees?

Aschari: Dissent-based discussions can occur at various levels of intensity. The moderator can let dissent occur with equal temperament. The better the moderator prepares for such a case, the easier it is to channel the discussion. Maintaining specific rules for the discussion and carefully selecting participants increase the probability that the discussion will be productive. The moderator deals individually with each participant. The moderator also strengthens the common trust of all participants in the opportunities and their awareness of the risks posed by a dissenting discussion. Finally, all participants should have a common interest in a solution acceptable for everyone.

Many companies consciously foster competition among their employees by entrusting the same task to two teams in parallel and then deciding on the better solution. Is this approach a waste of resources or an alternative for dissent-based decision making?

Aschari: In my opinion, this type of decision making is unreasonable because both teams are still subject to an inadequate decision-making process. And the artificial competition diverts attention from the actual goal. Ultimately, it’s not about trumping the other internal team, but about continuing to compete in the marketplace.