• 06.15.15

How To Use Conflict To Unlock Creativity

Sudhir Venkatesh asks, “Are you talking a good game on disruption, or are you actively embracing the power of conflict in the creative process?

How To Use Conflict To Unlock Creativity

The average CEO spends 25% of his time coping with conflicts. It’s worth asking how much of that conflict has truly been used for useful purposes, like fostering creativity?


Business mythology is rife with tales of firms that use conflict to rediscover their true purpose. Steve Jobs left Apple after conflicts arose regarding his dual role as VP and board chair. The exile enabled him to return invigorated and with a precise understanding of what the company needed. In a devilish move, IBM Chairman Louis Gerstner brought the behemoth computer manufacturer to its knees by creating conflict between its skilled engineering brain trust and a band of rebels experimenting with the brave new world of superconductivity. The result? IBM left behind bulky mainframes–a declining revenue stream–and moved deftly into networking technology (and later business consulting).

Creative industries pat themselves on the back for being “disruptive,” but too rarely are they willing to unleash that same uncertainty within themselves. The term has become overused and flabby. Any act that calls attention to oneself can be disruptive, but not every disruptive act is useful for managing a creative business. In fact, very few “disruptors” are savvy enough to exploit conflict for commercial gain. Doing so means exploiting disagreement, fostering debate, being open to one’s limitations, and managing emotions. These are precisely the skills that seem to separate profitable creative companies from the pack.

Former GE Chairman Jack Welch evangelized against “superficial congeniality,” the inability of companies to face threats and problems. Welch knew that confrontation was the key to progress. He was not only prepared for disruption, but demanded it, his “20-70-10” philosophy requiring that the bottom 10% of each division’s staff be tuned over on a regular basis.

So how can managers of companies in disruptive industries use conflict to foster innovation? When asked to respond, an investor in creative firms and a leader of one independently pointed in the same direction.

“The more innovative an idea, the more excited I become, the calmer I present it,” says Otis D. Gibson, the founder and chief creative officer of Gertrude, and some might say, a specialist in creative conflicts. As a leader in brand migration, Gertrude helps foreign companies penetrate U.S. markets. Gibson has become an expert in managing the outsize expectations of clients, handling the dissonance of foreign brands that land on U.S. shores and correcting cultural misperceptions of executives who approach the United States as “one big state rather than fifty countries.”

Inside the firm or with a client, Gibson points to the need for information as a tool to push conflict in the right direction. ““The crucial part of dealing with conflict is learning to deal with your emotions. Screaming something at someone doesn’t make it more true,” he says. “When our clients are not quite seeing an idea the way we intend, my team and I will go away, rethink the presentation and re-present the same idea highlighting some additional facts that strengthens and build the case for that particular idea.” The willingness of Gibson and his team to accept the conflict that comes from standing by an idea in the face of initial rejection is a trait common to the strongest leaders of truly disruptive companies. As in their willingness to find new ways to make their argument more effectively.

Its not just persistence, says Gibson, being careful to point out the limits of passion. ““Ok, you care deeply. Great. But you squeeze an egg hard enough and it will break. At the end of the day, it’s not your money. Sometimes creatives forget that you’re asking that client to put their trust, reputation, and name on it as well, in addition to investing their money in it. We must remember that it’s a major risk for all parties involved. Your passion needs facts. Anticipate their worries. Prep yourself.”


As an investor, Shaun Abrahamson looks for something similar in the creative proposals that he vets for seed funding. Abrahamson brings his ideas together in a new book, Crowdstorm, on the power of groups to facilitate creative thinking. Well before the company is even created, conflict can make the difference between a worthy entrepreneur and an un-deserving one.

“Entrepreneurs need to understand it will be antagonistic all the way. When I hear a pitch, I know the person can handle conflict if I see them with plans to test their assumptions,” says Abrahamson, reflecting on what he looks for in a startup idea. “Right away, if I see elaborate plans–this first, then this, then that–I get scared. That’s someone who can’t deal with conflict, who can’t take new ideas and revise their plans.”

Abrahamson points to Zocdoc, the company linking doctors and patients, as an example of conflict leading to entrepreneurial insight. An early investor, Abrahamson recalls that company founders admitted they were going after an idea that others had viewed as a failure. “Instead of giving up, they made the criticism part of their pitch; they tested the assumptions cheaply and quickly, and found data to adjust their approach,” he says. “That told me they were interested in listening to others and actively seeking feedback. Creativity arises when you consciously seek opinions from those who are different or force you to revisit your assumptions.”

Sir Ken Robinson, the noted education and creativity expert, has long been known for his belief that “you’ll never do anything creative if you’re not prepared to be wrong.” For most individuals that’s a daunting enough challenge. Within a business, systematizing failure is an impossible dream unless you first build a tolerance for conflict.

As the old saying goes, there are two sides to every story. As a manager of a disruptive business, your job is not just to hear both of them, but to create an environment that relishes that debate, and the original solutions that come from them.

Sudhir Venkatesh is William B. Ransford Professor in Sociology & the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. He advises companies on unlocking ‘Profitable Creativity’ through The Lookinglass Consultancy.

[Image: Flickr user Tim Fields, Okko Pyykkö, The B’s]