Change Management

We Have to Learn to Disagree

Elisabeth Raes

We have to learn to disagree. We need new ways of eating, living together, consuming, working, building community, and traveling. Just to name a few: everybody agrees on right-wing parties and left-wing parties; climate change believers and climate change deniers; digital natives and analog natives. Be it for different reasons: to be on top of the competition, to save the world from disappearing under water, to cure the cancer of a loved one or to be a trendsetter. We all agree: the sky is the limit. We need innovative and creative solutions. We need to create a new normal.

Collaboration Meets Innovation

We also agree that we cannot do it alone: Steve had Steve, Barack had Joe and organisations collectively build teams to deal with complex problems.

Disagreeing is the biggest potential of any collaboration.

But what is it about collaboration and innovation? Merely bringing together a couple of people is not going to do the trick. The key lies in the potential of disagreement. Disagreement is not only inevitable in teams, or anywhere where a collection of people is confronted with each other to get to the next step (think about making a relationship work or organising the next family weekend). It is also the biggest potential of any collaboration. If a team develops the ability to use disagreement in a constructive way, it has the secret ingredient to create a flow of energy so strong that it opens the world of innovation. However, if the disagreement is dealt with in a destructive way, it is a missed opportunity for innovation.

Agree to Disagree

So the first step to innovation is to learn how to disagree; not as a team, but as an individual. We need to learn how to be open to people very different from us; to learn how to disagree with people we would normally not (dare to) disagree with; to respectfully ask about the why and the how of the disagreement. To respectfully explain your point of view and to build upon this conflicting information to construct new points of view. Not only because you just start with more information if you also have contrasting information. It turns out that it is not the disagreement in itself that serves innovation, but the fact that when someone disagrees with us, we start to think differently. Adding contrasting information to the stored knowledge in our brain helps us find new solutions. 

Can You Handle It?

But that implies that we can deal with disagreement. And that requires vulnerability, lots of gut and a huge amount of maturity. Because, let's be honest, who really likes pointing out to his/her boss that they have a different point of view? Who really enjoys telling someone who worked blood sweat and tears on a project for months that they forgot to include contrasting but essential evidence? And who likes it to be pointed out by their loved ones that they are wrong? Or admit that they changed point of views after hearing conflicting information?

Every party in the disagreement needs to be mature enough not to see disagreement as a personal or professional attack but rather as an essential part of the route to the solution. That is when we start learning together. That is when we really start thinking out of the box. That is when we start co-creating new things. That is when real innovative ideas are born.