5 rules for productive conflict

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Margaret Heffernan speaks at TEDGlobal 2012

Rob Manning did everything in his power to screw up the Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars last night. Manning not only cut radio signals to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s control room, but also simulated a hole being poked in the rover’s fuel system and solar flares flying toward the spacecraft.

Why would he do this?

Because he is the chief engineer for the rover mission, and wanted his team to be able to handle any worst-case scenario.

“Being a gremlin allows me to soul-search and look at all the things that I missed,” Manning told the Chicago Tribune in the days before last night’s landing.

Manning’s mischief would certainly get a thumbs up from management expert Margaret Heffernan. In a thought-provoking talk given at TEDGlobal 2012, Heffernan shared a counterintuitive lesson learned in her years running businesses and organizations — that conflict and opposition are essential for good thinking.

To make her point, Heffernan shared the story of Alice Stewart, an epidemiologist in England in the 1950s, who studied a steep uptick in the incidence of childhood cancer. Stewart made a startling discovery in her research — that children developing the disease were overwhelmingly born to mothers who had prenatal x-rays. Still, even with her research widely circulated, it still took more than 25 years for the medical establishment to listen to Stewart and abandon the practice of giving x-rays to pregnant women. Most people would have started to question their work. But Stewart stayed confident because she had a collaborator, statistician George Kneale, who actively tried to disprove her in any way he could — with zero success.

While our cultural zeitgeist tends to think of the ideal partners as two people thinking together — and doling out high fives at regular intervals — Heffernan says of Stewart and Kneale, “It’s a fantastic model of collaboration — thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers. I wonder how many of us dare to have such partners.”

In her talk, Heffernan shared a stunning statistic — that 85% of executives had concerns with their company that they were afraid to raise, out of fear of the conflict that would ensue. Heffernan warns that this not only means that businesses aren’t getting the best work out of their employees, but that issues which could be nipped in the bud internally perpetuate themselves.

So how do you foster conflict in businesses and science labs that leads to nimbler thinking rather than, say, a lot of yelling and hurt egos? After the jump, Heffernan shares her guidelines for productive disagreement.

1. Appoint a devil’s advocate. Someone whose excellence is demonstrated by the quality of questions they ask. Great questions include: “What are the best reasons not to do this?” “What don’t we know that, if we did know, would change our decision?” “If we had more money or time, what would we do?” “If this were a documentary, what would be the narrative arc?” It’s important that different people play the role of devil’s advocate: if it is always the same person, they’ll get tuned out — and burned out.

2. Find allies. If you have concerns, try asking others privately, “Are you okay with this? Does anything about this bother you? Is there another way to frame this question?” Having allies allows you to work together to be creative and solve the problem.
3. Listen for what is NOT being said. If the conversation is being framed about money, consider what is not being talked about. If everyone’s talking technology, what have they left out of their equation? Sometimes it’s helpful to bring in an outsider to help with this. They should do nothing but listen. Then, ask for their impressions — not recommendations. They may notice trends that people embroiled in the conversation simply can’t.
4. Imagine you cannot do what you all want to do. In other words, think about what you would do if you could fire someone, if you could change the timetable, or if you were allowed to cancel the deal. If you could do any of those things — would you still proceed with your plan? What are the hidden orthodoxies nobody is challenging?

5. After a decision is made, declare a cooling off period. Ask everyone to go home and think about the decision on their own as well as discuss it with their family. Come back after a prescribed amount of time and ask the group: does the decision still look great?

Explains Heffernan, “All of these guidelines are neutral and designed to aid exploration rather than judgment. There’s never any reason not to try these — who doesn’t want to make better decisions?”