I'm still thinking about conflict in organizations -- and thinking that a certain kind of conflict is not only good but necessary for long-term success. The key is getting productive conflict to happen in a way that doesn't generate hostility.
It seems to me that businesses succeed today largely by adapting to changing realities. Often, however, the first time someone suggests an idea or a change in direction, it is not greeted with widespread acceptance. A couple of years back, Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, gave a keynote at the Inc. 500 conference, and before the conference he administered a two-question survey to attendees:
(1) Ideas the CEO initially doesn't like are regularly implemented. True or false?
(2) Our CEO encourages thinking that challenges our current beliefs. True or false?
Ninety percent of the CEO attendees answered question 1 as true—but only 60 percent of their direct reports agreed. Seventy-seven percent of the CEOs answered the second question as true, while only 47 percent of their direct reports agreed.
This suggested to Cooke (as it does to me) that as leaders, we may think we encourage divergent thinking in our organizations more than we really do—even though it is divergent thinking that is critical for our firms to adapt quickly.
In my study of the financial performance of 7,000 companies over a 22-year period, I found that the top performers had figured out ways to encourage people in the firm to take a full swing at the issues, even when they knew their position might be controversial. We borrowed a term from my friend Ichak Adizes to describe people willing to take that risk: Insultants. Insultants are people who "consult from the inside"—people willing to question the assumptions upon which the firm is based, people who point the way to important future adaptations.