Who here wants to have better, stronger ideas? I think it’s safe to say everyone does. Traditionally individuals are taught to try and limit conflict, particularly when working in teams. However, a study published by Charlan Nemeth of UC Berkeley suggests that having regular, structured fights may be one of the single most important ingredients in the ideation process.
Everyone struggles with the brainstorm. We all want to have good ideas, but sometimes they can be a bit elusive. Well, it’s time to say goodbye to this problem as “A significant body of research now suggests that conflict among teams is good, especially when that fighting is focused around creative ideas,” according to David Burkus in an article from Behance’s blog, 99u. When projects are being developed, criticism and constructive feedback are integral steps that add value to the overall ideation process. According to Stanford University professor, Robert Sutton, “Constant argument can mean there is a competition to develop and test as many ideas as possible, that there is wide variation in knowledge and perspectives.”
UC Berkeley professor and researcher, Charlan Nemeth, wanted to explore the role conflict plays in creating and producing creative ideas, if at all. Nemeth and a team of researchers, assembled participants into three separate experimental groups (minimal, brainstorming, and debate) each with their own set of constrictions. Each team was then issued the same challenge: how can they reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The “minimal condition” team was given was given no further instructions and was told to come up with as many ideas as possible. The “brainstorming condition” team was given the traditional set of brainstorming rules – the most important of which was that all judgement should be suspended and no idea criticized or debated. The final “debate condition” team was given a set of rules similar to the brainstorming team with one important difference: they were told to debate and criticize each other’s ideas as they were developed.
While the “brainstorming” team ended up coming up with more ideas than the “minimal” team, the “debate” team outperformed the entire pack. According to Burkus, “Teams that debated their ideas produced an average of 25% more ideas than other teams in the same period of time.” Not only did they develop more ideas during the exercise, but also when asked if they had any additional ideas during a post-experiment interview the “debate” team outperformed the rest, suggesting five to seven additional ideas. Nemeth writes, “Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas, but rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.”
This idea of hosting a structured debate isn’t new. Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, in the 1970s held regularly scheduled arguments. It was viewed as a routine part or research and development in the lab’s operations. Today, Pixar too utilizes this management style. Each day, “teams gather first thing in the morning to review their work from the previous day. They examine each frame produced in turn and criticize nearly everything about it. No detail is too small to critique and no one is prohibited from arguing against the work of someone else,” explains Burkus.
There are some important principles to keep in mind if you are to get the most out of a product debate. For example, Burkus points out that “Whenever you’re fighting about ideas, however, it’s important that you’re engaging in the ‘right fight,’ criticizing another person’s ideas and not the person himself. This type of conflict, what researchers call ‘intellectual’ or ‘task’ conflict, must be done in an atmosphere of mutual respect and must be based on the factual information available.” Bob Taylor, a former manager at Xerox PARC, said of their meetings, “If someone tried to push their personality rather than their argument, they’d find that it wouldn’t work.” These are the “ground rules”, if you will, that are necessary to create these “structured” arguments.
So there you have it. Next time you’re starting a project, working on a new product update, or outlining a new campaign, try holding some of these arguments – the result will be a stronger end product as well as fostering more ideas which everyone can benefit from.