What is Creative Abrasion—and Why Does My Company Need it?

By David Ryan Polgar, Contributor

Groupthink may be the death of innovative culture. In fact, according to many leaders in business, such as Linda Hill, Harvard Business School professor and faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative, if you want to develop something new, you have to get the ideas out there and have them challenge one another.

“You do not get innovation usually without diversity and conflict,” Hill explained. “Many leaders will say to us, ‘I don’t want conflict—frankly, I don’t know if I want a whole lot of [diverse perspectives].’ But fundamentally as a leader if you want to get innovation, you have to amplify the differences in your organization—not minimize them.”

However, developing what Hill and her team at HBS refer to as ‘creative abrasion,’ the concept of innovation through diversity of thought, is easier said than done. According to a 2016 HBR survey, only 9 percent of respondents believe their team members make an effort to understand different perspectives.

Creative Abrasion in Action

Daniel Dworkin, a partner at Schaffer Consulting, whose work focuses on organizational transformation and leadership development, sees the lack of effort in understanding different perspectives as a missed opportunity to grow a business.

“All the research that we’ve done, combined with my personal experience working on innovation teams and supporting teams going after big complex challenges,” Dworkin, said, “[is that] productive conflict is essential.”

Dworkin and his colleagues recently interviewed 30 people from a publicly-traded tech company to better understand their experiences on high-performing teams. As Dworkin expected, the interviewees emphasized the importance of task orientation. Yet perhaps more interesting is that Dworkin and his team found that relationship-oriented drivers—like trust, social cohesion, and a sense of belonging—were cited just as frequently.

Participants highlighted social connection and fun as key enablers of their teams’ success more than any other ingredients besides autonomy and empowerment. For Dworkin, this was a sign that trust and social cohesion may go hand-in-hand with productive friction as colleagues feel secure in making impassioned arguments.

“What we’ve learned,” Dworkin said, “is that you need differing perspectives and people that are willing to stand up and put [their ideas out there], and be willing to do so with passion.”

Perhaps colleagues are more willing to do so if they also fraternize on a regular basis. Yet, Dworkin is careful to note that there is a fine line between productive and destructive conflict.

While purposefully trying to cultivate conflict may go against management’s natural inclination to promote workplace harmony, this type of creative conflict may be a source of innovation, accelerated learning, and building trust within a heterogeneous groups. Putting diverse groups of people together—ranging in skills, backgrounds, experiences, and thoughts (cognitive diversity)—he said, is a recipe for that positive type of friction.

“What we’ve learned is that you need differing perspectives and people that are willing to stand up and put [their ideas out there], and be willing to do so with passion.”
— Daniel Dworkin, partner, Schaffer Consulting

‘Embracing the Dragon’

In his book, “The Creative Priority: Putting Innovation to Work in Your Business,” famed auto designer Jerry Hirshberg refers to healthy conflict as “embracing the dragon.”

Hirshberg describes, for example, the exercise of cultivating a creative conflict between a designer and an engineer. To begin, the designer makes an argument based on their design background, often placing a premium on aesthetics, the need for additional costs, and emotional considerations. Next, an engineer will make a case, on the same project, for cutting back on additional costs, but considering manufacturing.

After each side makes their argument, they switch to defend the alternate perspective. In the end, this exercise of empathy is meant to help both people understand the complexities of the project on a deeper level.

It’s scenarios like Hirshberg’s that reveal the benefits of creative abrasion that would be hard to generate from just one person. “It’s not about being right or wrong,” Dworkin said. “It’s about helping the collective to think together in a way that no individual on that team could achieve.”

For Dworkin, in order for that friction to be productive, it has to have a purpose and an end-point. There has to be, Dworkin explained, an environment where there is a common understanding about how decisions will be made from that friction—and a common goal to mitigate long-term frustration. Yet to do so requires organization. “That’s where clarity about roles, responsibilities, and decision-making really come into to play,” he said.

As for how teams can cultivate an environment for creative friction, Dworkin returns to the importance of facilitating trust between co-workers. A little fun, he’s found, doesn’t hurt.

“People that socialize together, have fun together, and connect meaningfully with one another,” he said. “They’re in a totally different position to have a productive conflict.”