Conflict can be the spark that ignites innovation. There are four different type of innovators, and each brings his or her expertise (but also his or her weaknesses) to the table. Constructive conflict between this four points of view is the key to creating strong and lasting innovations. Today, we’ll discover the story of Mae, the Sage.

Mae loved to knit, but she didn’t like beautiful things. Elegant and chic were two words not in her vocabulary. “If you want something that’s in style, go to a store,” she joked when relatives and friends gave her their requests for tasteful scarves and fashionable hats. Her specialty was tastelessness. Homespun kitsch—the kind of sweaters people wear ironically to ugly sweater parties—those were Mae’s favorite pieces to make. She found beauty in the awful and was determined to share it with everyone she knew.

There was a sweet logic to Mae’s preference for the ugly: in her eyes, the aesthetics of knitting were an afterthought. It was the connections she made with others that she valued most about her favorite pastime. In over 30 years of knitting every day, Mae forgot many of her most hideous creations, but she never forgot any of the people she made them for.

A social worker who constantly went out of her way to help others, Mae made her passion communal. In her living room, she hosted all sorts of friends, acquaintances, friends of friends—anyone with the slightest connection to knitting, from veteran knitters, to eager beginners, to reluctant recipients of future ugly sweaters. At her gatherings, she did what she did best: knitted and talked. While she stitched away, she listened to other people’s problems, offered advice, and helped visitors find other people who might help them solve their problems. Mae created much more than too many ugly sweaters to count. Her house became a kind of community center where people could chat, meet others, unwind, recharge, find solace, and, of course, knit.

Like a child outgrowing her baby quilt, Mae’s weekly meetings got too large for her house. Eager to keep her at-home community center going, she looked around for other spaces. A nearby elementary school had recently become vacant. She’d heard rumors of an imminent demolition, so she went to the school board and asked if she could rent the space. Mae promised to keep the school in good condition and to pay a fee for the use of the space in return for the creation of an actual community center. The officials thought the idea was great and agreed to let Mae rent the space.

The knitting meet-up was only one of many regular activities at the new center. People of all ages, with interests of all kinds, showed up for a variety of programs, including open counseling groups and courses in painting, crafts, creative writing, and languages. Eventually, Mae let new teachers, mentors, and leaders run the center, and she enjoyed the facility as just another individual.

At the peak of the center’s popularity and success, Mae died. In the wake of her absence—a huge devastation to everyone in the community—the center thrived. Instead of falling apart, the members, who all had different skills and specialties, stepped up and carried on Mae’s legacy. The connoisseur of ugly had left behind a thing of surprising splendor.

A Compassionate Facilitator

Part connector, part listener, part counselor, Mae is a Sage for the ages, a mentor even to other mentors. In her radiant—indeed, contagious—warmth, she’s a shining example of this most compassionate of creative leaders. Her greatest qualities are the things that define Sages at the top of their games: persistence, empathy, and the desire, above all else, to be around, work with, and learn from both like-minded and totally different people. Sages are facilitators that put everyone they meet at ease. They attract people and bring them together, creating a family atmosphere and collaborative spirit.

Their charisma lies in their reserve, their willingness to let other people speak. Recall the way Mae gladly gave up her role heading up the community center once it got off the ground and she herself became an eager patron. Sages thrive on building a culture—defining the larger character and vision of the people they unite. They are the fundamental source of knowledge for the groups and teams they lead. They are the people who first develop the crucial competences and capabilities that endure for years or even lifetimes.

At the organizational level, the Sage companies are driven by their shared values—often by a desire to help others. They look for input from everyone within and without their ranks, from new and old employees, to consumers, to friends, and they welcome people of all kinds into their family. Think universities. Think Habitat for Humanity. Think Doctors Without Borders. This is a dynastic kind of innovation—a vision that gets passed down from generation to generation.

The Sage is one of the actors of innovation. To get the best out of your innovation project, don’t hesitate to use all the resources that are available to you. Do not avoid conflict, but embrace it, as it will allow you to see and understand how you can improve your processes and innovate in a way that you didn’t know was possible.

Excerpted from The Innovation Code by Jeff and Staney DeGraff (Berrett-Koehler Publishers August 7, 2017)


The Innovation Code is a rigorous but highly accessible guide for achieving breakthrough solutions by utilizing the full—and seemingly contradictory—spectrum of innovative thinking.

Learn More

Conflict Creates Innovation

Conflict doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, conflict is the very force that will bring about the best outcome in almost any given innovation initiative. The only way to create unlikely yet groundbreaking, provocative, and winning solutions is to build a team that doesn’t agree—a team that challenges each other by combining deeply dissimilar worldviews.

Constructive conflict propels innovation at the personal and organizational level. There are four basic approaches to innovation: the Artist, who loves radical innovation; the Engineer, who constantly improves everything; the Athlete, who competes to develop the best innovation; and the Sage, who innovates through collaboration.

The disharmony between Artists and Engineers and the tension between Sages and Athletes correspond to the two different dynamics of innovation: magnitude and speed. When it comes to the magnitude—or the intensity—of an innovation, Artists drive Engineers to be more radical while Engineers rein in Artists, bringing some pragmatism to their visions. When it comes to the speed of an innovation, Sages slow Athletes down, encouraging them to build a culture that will last for generations, while Athletes keep the Sage’s head in the game, calling attention to quick wins and short-term strategy.

While these two forms of conflict are the fundamental dissonances that propel innovation and growth, it’s crucial that all four of the dominant worldviews interact with each other. The ideal team or organization contains Sages, Artists, Engineers, and Athletes. The key is not to strike a balance but to know when you need more or less of each approach.

Jeff DeGraff presents The Innovation Code


As an innovation leader, you will find it important to take an inside-out perspective in developing your team. First, look at your own skills and decide objectively where you think you might be incompetent. Give those kinds of tasks and responsibilities to another member of your team. Next, look at the areas where you are merely competent and assign these actions to other members of your team to supplement your own competency. Then, find the areas where you are masterful and choose a member of your team whom you can train as your understudy in those tasks. Finally, determine the areas in which you are unique—your one-of-a-kind gifts or skills. Here is the part of the innovation leadership proposition that you need to focus on. This is the way to maximize your own value to the team.

Teams are works in progress. They are dynamic groups that you need to add to and take away from as you move along in your project and see what you need more and less of. The same people who are great at starting a project are not the same people who are great at getting the project to scale.

Conflict is inevitable when you put such a wide variety of perspectives on one team—and that’s a good thing. The ugliest word in innovation is apathy. When an Engineer clashes with an Artist or an Athlete butts heads with a Sage, resist your impulse to bring about peace. Engage. Dwell in the conflict. See what happens when opponents push each other to their limits. For that is when the game-changing hybrid solutions you never could’ve foreseen on your own arise. The best hybrid solution is a temporary one. In solving the immediate conflict, it sets the stage for the next better conflict. Like a boxing match with infinite rounds of ever-escalating intensity, innovation is a year-round sport.

Excerpted from The Innovation Code by Jeff and Staney DeGraff, Berrett-Koehler Publishers (August 2017)


The Innovation Code is a rigorous but highly accessible guide for achieving breakthrough solutions by utilizing the full—and seemingly contradictory—spectrum of innovative thinking.

Learn More

Behind some of the twentieth century’s most iconic love songs is a series of prolonged, tense, irreconcilable conflicts. In the writing room and the recording studio, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were everything their music wasn’t: disharmonious, discordant, hostile. As professional partners, their worldviews couldn’t have been more different. Lennon, the Artist, was the nonconformist, always looking for the next big thing. McCartney, the Engineer, sought beauty by embracing order. Far from putting their differences aside, the diametrically opposed geniuses dwelled in the conflict. They didn’t fake accord for the sake of a peaceful working relationship. They were competitive with one another and pushed and pulled each other as they cowrote albums that managed to alternately highlight their divergent gifts. They didn’t compromise. They didn’t give in to the other. They elevated each other through their conflict. In seven years of constructive conflict, they wrote close to 200 songs and released 13 albums. The two men who made irresistible, genre-defining art out of the simple wish to hold your lover’s hand might’ve, under all other circumstances, very well preferred to be apart from each other.

This kind of constructive conflict is crucial in any creation process—not just for the collaborative production of art but for any degree of innovation in your life or your organization. And you don’t need to be a once- (or twice-) in-a-millennium virtuoso to cultivate constructive conflict.

In fact, there are concrete steps you can take to generate positive deviance in your innovation initiative. This isn’t to say that they’re easy and always guaranteed to work. Quite the contrary: this is a complicated process that takes long periods of practice and failing to finally find success. Like playing a piano, dwelling in conflict is a skill you need to try and try doing over again to perfect. And, in the process, it will take you to uncomfortable places. But that’s a discomfort—like the conflict itself—that you can and should dwell in. The very impulse to innovate comes from a negative feeling, a form of dissatisfaction: you’re unhappy with the present and so you want to make it better and new. Harness that dissatisfaction and make it into productive energy. As you work through that dissatisfaction, the discomfort will get greater before it lessens; the mess will get bigger before it becomes manageable. Don’t try to tidily clean up the mess. Get deeper in it and follow these steps:

  1. Assemble a diversity of perspectives
  2. Engage in the conflict
  3. Establish a shared goal or vision
  4. Construct hybrid solutions

Start with Lennon, end with McCartney. Innovation happens in phases, and at every moment, one viewpoint is more important than the other. No one can be fully effective at all phases of innovation. It’s crucial that you understand when each worldview should be put first.


Jeff DeGraff presents The Innovation Code


In the beginning, the Artist is likely to be the most important contributor. Her divergent point of view looks to the future and opens new possibilities. This is the moment when the Engineer should contribute least, as she’s likely to eliminate the wow factor of an innovation because her mind always goes to practical concerns, asking what’s actually possible. At the tail end of an innovation, when you need to bring the project to scale, the Engineer steps in as the driving force as her expertise with process and reliability becomes most important, and her talent for tinkering and improving things is vital. By this point, an Artist will likely have lost interest and be searching for the next avant-garde thing.

In the middle stages, Sages and Athletes are invaluable. A Sage negotiates, gets buy-in, and pushes the innovation through the organization, while an Athlete keeps the project on track, hits all the success measures, and grows momentum. These two need each other. Without the Athlete, the Sage is too busy bringing everyone along to hit important milestones. Without the Sage, the Athlete plows through without any buy-in or support.

One of the most important things about leading and managing innovation is keeping the team flexible and realizing when the current team configuration no longer produces the constructive conflict you need. Some team members can also burn out or can no longer contribute because of other commitments or assignments. Keep your network wide and platoon players in and out as you need them. Do not be afraid to try different combinations of people. Learn what makes the team work and create some rules that you can use for the future.

All innovations end. There is a natural end to any creative lifecycle. Brian Epstein’s death precipitated the breakup of the Beatles. Without the glue that held the band together, the man who helped the guys work through their conflict and maintain their shared vision, the band’s demise became inevitable. John became increasingly unsatisfied with the production of his songs and found inspiration in Yoko instead. A true Engineer, Paul wanted to make sure that the band continued to make good financial decisions without Epstein. But when he wanted to bring in a different manager, the others refused. Paul and John could no longer collaborate on songs. The constructive conflict was no longer sustainable.

The next problem and the next agents of constructive conflict that will power its solution: that’s the innovation afterlife. The hope is that if you’ve successfully created a culture of constructive conflict, where positive deviance is an everyday norm and the teams of people who practice it are ever-changing, you’re already looking toward the future.

Excerpted from The Innovation Code by Jeff and Staney DeGraff, Berrett-Koehler Publishers (August 2017)


The Innovation Code is a rigorous but highly accessible guide for achieving breakthrough solutions by utilizing the full—and seemingly contradictory—spectrum of innovative thinking.

Learn More