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Big Ideas

Why Fighting For Our Ideas Makes Them Better

How can we produce great ideas again and again? New research suggests that healthy criticism is an essential ingredient in the brainstorming process.

After studying newlyweds for just a short period of time, psychology researcher Dr. John Gottman can predict whether the couple will be together in five years with over 90 percent accuracy. So how does he do it? He gets them to argue. Gottman watches the couples debate, and he analyzes how they fight. Surprisingly, the ability to engage in healthy, respectful disagreement is a huge predictor of long-term success.

It turns out that creative teams – and their ideas – are no exception. A recent study from Charlan Nemeth at UC Berkeley, and the practices of outstandingly creative firms like Xerox PARC and Pixar, suggest that conflict isn’t something to be reduced. In fact, regular, structured fighting may be one of the single most important ingredients in the ideation process.

A significant body of research now suggests that conflict among teams is good, especially when that fighting is focused around creative ideas. If everyone on a team is always in agreement, it can mean that they don’t have very many ideas, or that the team values cohesiveness and lack of conflict more than generating and evaluating ideas. Either way, an overly cohesive environment may be standing in the way of producing outstanding creative work.

When a project is being developed, but isn’t fully formed, criticism and constructive conflict are vital to testing the value of the ideas and helping increase that value. Robert Sutton, professor at Stanford University puts it this way: “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.”

When a project is being developed, but isn’t fully formed, criticism and constructive conflict are vital to testing the value of the ideas.

Consider one study by a team of researchers led by Charlan Nemeth of UC Berkeley. The researchers wanted to explore whether conflict really did play a role in generating and producing creative ideas. They assembled participants into three separate experimental conditions (minimal, brainstorming, and debate) and formed them into teams within those conditions.

Each team was tasked with generating ideas for the same challenge: how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. Teams in the “minimal condition” were given no further instructions and told to develop as many ideas as possible. Teams in the “brainstorming condition” were given the traditional set of brainstorming rules; paramount among those rules being the notion that all judgment should be suspended and no idea criticized or debated. Teams in the final, “debate condition” were given a set of rules similar to brainstorming with one important difference: they were told to debate and criticize others’ ideas as they were generated.

When the results were calculated, the winners were clear. While teams in the “brainstorming condition” did generate more ideas than the teams given “minimal” instructions, it was the teams in the “debate condition” that outperformed the rest. Teams that debated their ideas produced an average of 25% more ideas than the other teams in the same period of time.

Even after the teams had disbanded, the influence of debate on generating ideas continued. In follow-up interviews with each subject, researchers asked the participants if they had any more ideas for solving the traffic problem. Participants from the “minimal” and “brainstorming” conditions did have one or two more ideas, but participants in the “debate condition” gave an average of seven additional ideas. In summarizing the results of their study, Nemeth writes “Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.”

Teams that debated their ideas produced an average of 25% more ideas than the other teams.

Nemeth’s research, it turns out, had already been in regular practice at one company renowned for producing consistently outstanding creative work: Pixar. For the animators at Pixar, conflict and debate is part of their morning routine. Every 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. Everything from the angle of the lighting to the timing of certain sound effects is brought up and fought over. This intense process, sometimes called “shredding,” can be draining, but the Pixar teams know that the process is vital to their ability to release quality work again and again.

The idea of structured debate isn’t new. In the 1970s at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, PARC, regularly scheduled arguments were a routine part of the research and development laboratory’s operations. Xerox PARC held weekly meetings they called “Dealer” (from the popular book Beat the Dealer) where one person, selected as the speaker for the week, or the “dealer,” would present an idea and try to defend it against a room of engineers and scientists determined to prove him wrong. Such debates helped to improve products under development and sometimes resulted in wholly new ideas for future pursuit.

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.

Whenever you’re fighting about ideas, however, it’s important that you’re engaging in the right fight.

At Xerox PARC, the facilitators of the “Dealer” meeting were careful to make sure that only intellectual criticisms received attention and consideration. Bob Taylor, a former manager at PARC, said of their meetings, “If someone tried to push their personality rather than their argument, they’d find that it wouldn’t work.” Fighting over a person’s thinking was always acceptable, fighting about her character or personality was never permitted.

At Pixar, the animators have developed a technique that helps keep the fighting productive and intellectual. They call it “plussing.” As people criticize the work under review, that criticism must always contain a new idea or a suggestion for strengthening the original idea – it must contain a “plus.” Without plussing, their morning crit sessions can get pretty negative and emotionally draining. With plussing, the same meetings are imbued with a positive tone and a direct connection between criticism and newer or better ideas for their work. The meetings still feel like a fight, but they feel like the healthy, respectful fights that keep couples, creative teams, and ideas growing and changing for the better.

What’s Your Experience?

Do you use structured conflict or debate to make your ideas better?

More Posts by David Burkus

Comments (30)
  • CoagulateTweak10
  • Max Hachemeister

    At my workplace almost every discussion tends to be, well flat, due to an want to be flat hierarchy.
    It’s like having the right idea but only going the half way.
    Everyone is free to express his ideas, but no one is ready to debate about it.
    This leads to many, many half baked concepts, which also tend to fail in the long run, because the details, which would have definetly been discussed in an open debate were forgotten.

    Deferential debating definetly wins every discussion.

  • davidburkus

    Thanks for sharing, Max. Bummer. It’ll take awhile to change the culture organization wide, but perhaps on a smaller scale, with your team or direct peers, you can use a tool like plussing to start sparking debate.

  • Tim B

    Great article for discussion.

    “New research suggests that healthy critciism is an essential ingredient…”
    At the risk of nitpicking, there is a typo in the introduction.
    I found it interesting to read that Dr. Gottman states on his website that “Happily married couples behave like good friends, and they handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways.” That doesn’t sound like what was happening at Xerox or Pixar.
    The difference between debating and fighting seems to parallel the difference between being assertive and being aggressive. When colleagues (or couples) fight they are rarely listening to the other sides argument. You can say it’s about the idea, but people get emotionally attached to what think.
    Having a positive atmosphere where people feel like they are encouraged to express their ideas is crucial.

  • Sean Blanda

    Thanks for the heads up. The typo has been fixed.

  • davidburkus

    Tim, I totally agree about the positive atmosphere. I think the tendency is to equate a lack of conflict with a positive atmosphere. The lesson of Pixar, Xerox (and indeed my own marriage) is that conflicts are sometimes inevitable and often make the end result more desirable. The trick is to keep them focused on the issue and not each other (at least I think so on the marriage front, I’ll let you know at my 50th wedding anniversary in 43 years). Thanks for the comment, and the edit.

  • Scott Belsky

    Fantastic article David.

    I’ve had the same observations in my own experiences with creative teams. The point you make about “plussing” – done at Pixar – is a critical one. It reminds me of the golden rule in improve: Never say “no” without adding something else into the mix to foster and support the exchange. Also, having people contribute ideas and iterations on top of their disagreements keeps the exchange positive and productive vs. defensive.

    One last point I’d add is ensuring that the fight doesn’t result in the lowest common denominator. You don’t want everyone to argue until everyone agrees on something that is completely unremarkable. In my experience, great teams fight but also empower certain perspectives/people to push the group towards novel solutions that may, at first, feel uncomfortable.

  • Richard Trovatten

    The Pixar example reminds me of a rule we emphasized in discussions at Hyper Island. We named it “approve or improve” and that’s pretty much how it worked. When ever scepticism meets this social demand, it has a tendency to either perish or change into constructive criticism.

  • davidburkus

    Richard, I love that idea. It’s too easy to fall into disapprove but not offer anything. I love that you’ve removed that as an option. A sweet variation on plussing.

  • davidburkus

    Great points Scott. I love the improv analogy. Thanks for the kind words.

  • Lauren Fleshler

    Really enjoyed your article. It reminds that this is the same model that creative workshops are based on, such as the ones used in teaching writing in colleges, universities and countless non-degree programs all over the world. You say what you like about a piece and then offer constructive criticism to improve the work. Other reviewers often chime in and agree or challenge the feedback, and, after everyone in the group has offered their input, the writer can then ask questions and engage the group in discussion about the feedback offered.

    Out of this process the writer is able to understand how others interpret their work, would approach and improve upon their material and so on. Most books go through some kind of workshopping process to ensure they’re as good as the author can make them.

    Basically, if the writing doesn’t hold up in a room full of “friendly” reviewers, then it most likely won’t hold up out in the harsh glare of the real world. And, that’s as true for a manuscript as it is for business concepts, creative or otherwise.

  • Scott Wagers

    Wow! Your post really resonated with me.

    The points you make are often under appreciated. To me a real gratifying experience is when in a stuctured debate two ideas are synthesized resulting in a new idea that is far better than the two original ideas on their own.

    I facilitate a lot of teleconferences for large collaborative biomedical research projects. At first, I have to admit, when I started doing this I found it onerous and dreaded having to do another. Until one day I witnessed this type synergy when we were discussing possible solutions to a problem we were facing. Two people were debating the problem from two different viewpoints and the discussion was going nowhere. Wanting to break up the discussion and move on, during a pause I asked if anyone else had any thoughts. One person who is usually pretty quiet on the TC spoke up with the perfect synergistic solution. You could almost hear the “oh yeahs” going off in everyone’s head.

    From that day on I have become more and more interested in the creative process of finding solutions to problems in a group. While I have read about structured debates and the pitfalls of pure brainstorming, your post brought out some more interesting aspects of this and nicely summarized the evidence. Thanks.

  • davidburkus

    Scott, Thanks so much for the comments. Have you read any of the work by researcher Kevin Dunbar? Dunbar actually conducted field studies on microbiology researchers to uncover their discovery process. Might be some helpful reading.

  • davidburkus

    Great point Lauren. Too often groups do us a disservice by being overly “friendly” and not a reflection on the real world reaction. Thanks so much for the comment.

  • Aimee Woodall

    This is a great article reminding people why it’s OK to not agree with
    every idea that is presented. Not only does it allow co-workers to know
    that honesty is valued on both sides, but it also leaves room to
    build-on and better the original idea. In a comfortable and open
    atmosphere the results can be infinite if the positive and negative
    sides of the idea are both addressed. Some of the greatest ideas and
    discussions spark from a disagreement. Everyone sees things differently
    so it’s only natural that ideas produce different reactions. The hard
    part is actually voicing disagreement, but if a technique like
    ‘plussing’ is understood from the beginning feelings won’t get hurt and
    ideas can only be improved.

  • Jay

    I like this “approve” or “improve” approach. Simple and actionable.

    Good job.

  • Guest

    Thanks for the kind words!

  • Sila Mahmud

    Very informative and useful article, i like to read your
    article very much. Thanks a lot for sharing with us.

  • davidburkus

    Thanks for the compliment. Much appreciated.

  • davidburkus

    I like the way you phrased that “it’s OK to not agree with every idea.” Thanks Aimee.

  • JohnnySmith0

    Probably why dictators aren’t very successful in the long run.

  • Adam Denard

    Really like this idea. Looking to implement this with our design team.

  • Guest

    Cool! Glad you like it!

  • Craig Peters

    Great article, David. Reminds me of the book Good to Great by Jim Collins. He says that the most successful executive teams were those that had fights; they fought hard about issues and then came back together when the decisions were made.

    We do a lot of design reviews internally and also with clients (we’re at a design agency). Your points are spot on.

    Especially with clients, we take great care to set the context explicitly in the presentation before showing the design solutions. For example, along with the typical here’s-where-we-are-in-the-project pages, we also include pages with:
    * Reiteration of the mission of the project and other drivers (why we’re all here)
    * Instructions for how to look at whatever we’re looking at (wireframes, site map, visual design comp, etc.)
    * What it means to sign off/approve (if it’s one of those meetings)
    * Narrative/story (e.g. from the point of view of the end user, etc.)

    The more we set it up this way, the more the participants are able to engage in, as you put it, the “right fight.”

  • Jose Simoes

    Very interesting article.. Makes me feel better already 🙂 It’s nice to see that something profitable can come out of a disagreement.

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