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Conflict Creates Innovation

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.

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