Startups

How to Boost Creativity with Disagreement

September 22, 2020

Too much agreement leads to boring products. After all, if everyone believes the same thing, what is the point of having so many people on staff anyway? You need a diverse group of creatives with different backgrounds, opinions, and lived experiences to create something that really meets customer needs. Why? Well these different ideas will lead to deeper discussions that challenge the status quo of what you’re working on. Instead of bringing a mediocre product to market, you’ll have thoroughly debated each facet of your product and come up with a much more creative solution. 

Before we get further, it’s important to note that not all disagreement is positive. Overly negative staff members that consistently shoot down the ideas of their colleagues will not boost creativity. Instead, you’ll need to work to create a culture of healthy disagreement in which employees feel comfortable voicing their opinions in a respectful way that is backed up by some sort of data. “I don’t like that” simply isn’t a good enough reason to abandon a strategy. “I think we need to talk to more users to get more comprehensive data points before we commit to this strategy.” Now that’s more like it! 

Disagreement Introduces New Considerations

If everyone is always in agreement within a team or organization, there is little incentive to think bigger or introduce new ideas. While this can be a comfortable environment to be in, it isn’t one that fosters rapid growth in terms of skills and product capabilities. Disagreeing creates tension and forces teams to think more creatively in order to come to a consensus. It begs the question “why?” Why isn’t this idea strong enough to get customers to switch from a competitor to our offering? Why should we reconsider our marketing metrics when it’s unclear how they map to sales outcomes? Questioning established processes and schools of thought can help you achieve your goals faster. 

A person sitting at a desk during a meeting point at their laptop.
Bring some data points with you when you plan to suggest an alternative plan.

Teams that disagree more often have to pull more data and provide more evidence to get colleagues on their side. And all this effort is worth it. What if Apple had said the iPod was enough and, instead of creating new products, they focused on small upgrades to the iPod each year? What if no one had offered up the concept of the App Store? In all likelihood, Apple would have tanked within a few short years because they simply didn’t innovate fast enough. 

Even as consumers, none of us would have thought that we’d have a smartphone mere feet from us for the majority of each day. This category creating invention took productive disagreements to hone over time and create the technology that we know and can’t get enough of. It required different points of view that got the wheels turning in the product department. These competing ideas were able to boost creativity to the extent that creating something aligned with the status quo simply wasn’t an option. 

Every company clearly isn’t Apple and might not upend product categories with new additions to their product suites, but the mindset is worth copying. Ask your team: what would we build if we had no constraints? What if we had an unlimited budget and staff? What would the optimal version of this product look like? Then take it back to the real world and introduce constraints on time and cost to find a middle ground. This exercise gets your team thinking about all the possibilities and it will help them find shortcuts and workarounds to make their ideal versions reality. And when they’re able to accomplish this, your company will benefit, customers will enjoy fully thought out products, and your employees will also unlock a new level to their learning. 

Hiring for Disagreement 

You choose your team members because of the unique skills they bring to the table, not because of their ability to say “yes,” even when they’re skeptical. Employees that are hyper creative and know how to disagree their way to an optimal product are the ones you should be on the lookout for. This can be assessed through situational questions, such “tell me about a time when you completely disagreed with the direction your team was considering. How did you resolve the situation and what did you learn from the experience?” To verify, you can always ask their references something similar to get their take on how the situation panned out. 

Two women in an interview in an office.
Situational questions can help illuminate how a candidate thinks.

Fostering Productive Disagreement

Disagreeing might not come naturally to everyone on your team, but there are ways to encourage them to speak up when their opinion differs in a way that will boost creativity for the entire team. This might come in the form of team building activities when everyone brainstorms ideas together. Put team members in a certain order and have them play the “yes, but what if we…” game. You can start with any topic, related to your business or opt for something completely random. Either way, the concept is to ask each employee to build off the idea verbalized by the person before them. Slowly the ideas will veer off and it will be interesting for the team to see how much the idea changes from start to finish. 

In a more formal setting, you can implement the policy of asking for objections or additions periodically during meetings. Adding a bit of structure can make even shy members of the team more likely to speak up and offer their expert opinion.

This could come in the form of assigning a “devil’s advocate” in key product meetings. Their job would be to make a strong argument stating why the proposed plan will fail. Even if the team doesn’t end up changing the original plan all that much, the practice of defending it will make the plan stronger thanks to the disagreement thought exercise. This is especially helpful when creating a product in a saturated market. Lining up your product next to every competitor and fully addressing the strong and weak points can help you eventually get to market with a foolproof plan to gain market share quickly. 

Another way to boost creativity is by having new experiences or learning something new. Work this into your company’s process to make sure that employees can learn from new people. Teams are built so that members can get to know one another and use those social bonds to accomplish tasks together. But what about pairing employees up from different teams to learn what the other person does and what their outlook is? These seemingly random matchings can open up employees’ views of what they’re working on and how they can get to the finish line.

An older man and younger woman are paired up at work to learn from one another.
Match up employees from different generations so that they can learn from one another.

Companies must break up silos in order to boost creativity because employees with long tenures may have years of institutional knowledge, but new hires may come with an inquisitive nature that can propel the company forward. Simply asking “why do we do it this way?” can be a catalyst to get new employee’s brains pumping and considering a new way to approach old problems. 

Creativity is Born in Challenge 

There are so many challenges involved in a business: budget and timeline constraints, clashing personalities, and beyond. But these instances of difficulty can really boost creativity. When you have a tight deadline or a shoestring budget you are forced to get creative in order to meet the deliverable on time and on budget. But it’s completely worth it in terms of learning how to be efficient and do more with less resources. This scrappiness is very helpful in startups, but it can also move the needle at larger organizations by helping established companies move faster and produce more category-defining products. 

Final Thoughts

Conflict can be positive in team environments, if you approach it the right way. This requires founders and executives to be on board and model the behavior in an effective way that makes it clear that disagreement is not criticism of the individual. Businesses need innovative employees that can take good ideas and make them great. This is only possible when everyone feels comfortable disagreeing and offering up their opinions. 

How do you boost creativity in your professional life with disagreement? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio.

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