Is it possible to make small tweaks to what you are already doing to create big change? Who doesn’t want to make minimal effort to go from good to great? This small book walks the talk of being small itself and yet identifies achievable ways to help you make big changes.
“Creative Conflict,” by Margaret Heffernan, focuses on what teams need to become great: different perspectives. With only five chapters and just over 100 pages, this is not a daunting tome. Two topics, Creative Conflict and Social Capital, held the most interest for me.
When creating a team, we are most likely to choose members that look like us, have backgrounds like ours, feel familiar and comfortable, Heffernan says. “Great teams need windows on the world, but biases mean we mostly get mirrors.” (p 12)
Choosing people who are different from us—those who have different experiences and perspectives—often results in ideas that sometimes come into conflict. Our first inclination is to shrink from conflict, but by creating an environment in which sharing our real thoughts and opinions are safe, where dialogue means a rich discussion and not affirmation of one initial (and probably bad) idea, often leads to better decisions—and results.
Looking at our own role in a team, we should consider which unique ideas or perspectives we can offer. Conversely, when we think we have an answer, especially when we are sure of it, we should ask ourselves, “What if we were wrong?” Seek disconfirmation.
In order to get to better decisions, Heffernan says to ask better questions. She suggests the following as applicable to nearly every situation:
- Who needs to benefit from our decision? How?
- What else would we need to know to be more confident of this decision?
- Who are the people affected by this decision? Who has the least amount of power to influence it?
- How much of this decision must we make today?
- Why is this important? And what is important about that?
- If we had infinite resources – time, money, people – what would we do? What would we do if we had none?
- What are all the reasons this is the right decision? What are all the reasons it is the wrong decision? (p 18)
This thought process calls to mind the ideas of “Farsighted” by Steven Johnson. Seeking more options creates better outcomes—consider what you would do if your first choice was no longer an option.
Social Capital builds on the idea of what it takes to build a successful team, asserting social capital creates trust, knowledge and reciprocity. Shared norms create quality of life and make a group resilient. Perhaps a lack of social capital is easier to identify: people are not able to speak or think openly. Heffernan reminds us of the study of Thomas Malone’s identifying factors needed to build successful teams: equal time to talk (don’t interrupt!), empathy and the value of women being on the team.
Since silos make it hard to connect and trust, we need to institutionalize ways to connect. She suggests using policies that force interaction, citing companies that forbid coffee cups on desks—lunch must also not be eaten at one’s desk—and requiring all employees to take breaks at the same time. At at least one company she has run, she has had the work end at 4 p.m. on Fridays, and the last hour of the day is a dedicated time for employees to present about themselves. Getting to know each other creates the connection needed to trust each other.
“In organizations with a high degree of social capital, disagreement doesn’t feel dangerous, it is taken as a sign you care,” she says. (p 34)
To create better discussions, she advocates listening. She encourages executives to not speak in most meetings, but to just listen to the discussion. Once a leader speaks, most stop listening to each other and jockey to align with the leader. She cites executives who have chosen to listen for surprises, for ideas they disagree with, for what is not said—emotions. Listening can even be a designated, rotating role for all. She recommends the listener take notes with two columns: what is said and what is meant.
This type of listening and note taking of what is communicated—not just what is said—produces a different kind of record of what happens at a meeting. This encouragement of people to speak openly and think deeply can increase social capital and create strong teams that are better equipped to effectively lead an organization.
Paul Harris, former CEO and cofounder of FirstRand bank in South Africa is quoted as saying: “I have never learnt anything from someone who agrees with me, so I expect everyone to talk openly to me even if their opinion differs from mine or those above them.” (p 87)