Innovation Through Conflict

Episode 53: Innovation Through Conflict

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock”.

That’s Orson Welles as Harry Lime in the 1949 classic, The Third Man. The subtext is clear; conflict breeds innovation. And yet conflict that is not constructively channelled can be deeply destructive. How do you harness conflict and use it to drive innovation?

Mind your manners. Don’t talk back. Respect your elders. Much of our collective upbringing is based on avoiding conflict. We are taught that conflict is inherently wrong because for every winner there is a loser. It is often destructive and hurtful. And yet without it we stagnate. Preserving the status quo only benefits those in positions of authority or dominance. And it is these authority figures that have the greatest reason to fear conflict and her second cousin, chaos. But to quote Littlefinger from HBO’s masterly series Game of Thrones, “chaos is a ladder“. Chaos breeds opportunity for the hungry, the ambitious, the disenfranchised. And chaos needs conflict in order to happen.

How does this apply to us as digital strategists? First, recognize that anyone working in digital needs to have a mindset of continuous disruption because the industry we work in is inherently disruptive. It is in a state of constant change. The most successful among us recognize this and are not simply carried by the change, but instead drive it.

The second consideration is that when we are hired, it is to make a change. It is our raison d’être. No-one hires a strategist because everything is perfect. We are often hired because a business is not fulfilling its potential or achieving objectives. As such, we need to deliver meaningful and well thought out change that drives performance. And this change cannot happen without conflict.

This is because in any enterprise there are vested interests. Someone came up with and executed the plan that hasn’t worked. Budgets are tied up with vendors and platforms. People will feel defensive. And defensiveness leads to conflict.

But there is a way to channel this conflict into a constructive outcome, and the strategist is well placed to play that part. It starts with laying out the objectives that you collectively have to achieve and determining the gap between that and the current state. Ask the individual subject matter experts for their opinion on what they need in order to deliver against the objective. Given the interconnected nature of digital marketing, many of these ideas will be requirements that others are supposed to fulfill. For example, higher performance from paid search requires better landing page environments, and these are someone else’s responsibility. This is where the conflict arises, and if not carefully managed will quickly devolve into angry finger-pointing. The role of the strategist in this dynamic is to continuously remind everyone of the overall objective and to ask leading questions that arrive at the right answer. Begin with the assumption that everyone around the table wants to achieve the objective. Acknowledge that the issues that are holding people back are common ones, and have arisen for any number of historical reasons. Then solicit ideas for how to overcome them. Ask what your colleagues would do if they could start from scratch and with an unlimited budget. Invariably people will come to the right conclusion when presented with a safe environment where conflict can be channeled constructively. Issues will be quickly uncovered and solutions developed, and most important of all because the ideas are not imposed but rather developed by the individual contributors, they are more likely to be implemented well because there is a sense of collective ownership.

In this way conflict is used to disrupt the status quo, to initiate change and to drive innovation.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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