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“Dis” It – Why Ideas Emerge from DISagreement

By Shlomo Maital


   Wharton School Professor Adam Grant writes often and well in the New York Times. In his Op-Ed piece on Nov. 9, “Kids, would you please start fighting?”, he makes an interesting point — Creativity often does not come from agreement. It often comes from disharmony, disagreement, dispute, argument and quarreling.

     Much of our lives is spent trying hard to maintain harmony, serenity, peace and calm. But Grant notes that “groupthink” is a major enemy of creativity, and groupthink emerges from forced consensus, when groups take the easiest direction, the lowest common denominator, to maintain harmony and agreement.

       “For our society to remain free and open, our kids need to learn the value of open disagreement,” he observes.

       Empirically Grant notes that “highly creative adults grow up in families full of tension…real disagreements.”   For instance, the Wright brothers, who flew the first airplane, came from such a family. Their father was a preacher who clashed with everybody, especially his boys’ school authorities. Orville and Wilbur Wright quarreled for weeks over the design of their propeller.

         I confess that a cardinal rule of team-based ideation is “withhold criticism”. Let ideas be born. And grow a bit. This is just temporary. At some stage, you do need to have a vigorous argument about which idea to adopt, or how to merge them. At this stage, disagreement is vital.

         Let’s be clear, there is a right and a wrong way to disagree. The wrong way to disagree is what is happening today in political debate, in the US, Israel and worldwide. This is a dialogue of the deaf. Conservatives watch Fox News. Liberals watch MSNBC. Nobody listens to anyone else, nobody tries to engage in constructive debate. Democrats and Republicans revile each other, and in general refrain from bipartisan constructive dialogue.

       The right way to disagree?   Start by listening.   Really listen to other views. Try hard to understand them. Before you frame your responses, listen to others. Stick to your guns and state your views with passion, but always, always question yourself as you question others. Critical thinking applies to your own thinking as well as to the views of others.

         Grant quotes research by a psychologist, Robert Albert, who finds that among children aged 5-7, creativity flourishes in families that are “tense but secure”. Kids whose parents argued constructively felt more emotionally safe, and showed greater empathy and concern for others. So, conclusion: “Instead of trying to prevent arguments, we should be modelling courteous conflict and teaching kids how to have healthy disagreements.”

   Grant’s four rules:

  • frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict;
  • argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong;
  • make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective;
  • acknowledge where you agree with your critiics and what you’ve learned from them.

An Increasingly Messy World: What We Each Must Do About It

By Shlomo Maital    

         messy world                

  My friend Bilahari Kausikan, a veteran Singapore diplomat and now Ambassador at Large, has written an excellent study titled “East Asia, US-China Relations and A New Global Architecture”.   Some of the points he makes have major implications for each and every person.  Here are a few excerpts:

   1.  We need a new ‘global architecture’:   “… once an American President has acknowledged the need for a new global architecture, it is a view that must be taken seriously. Only the US can lead and manage the transition from one system to another.    To reach a new global architecture, three sets of more or less tandem and inter-related adjustments will be necessary: a) global, b) regional, particularly in East Asia, and c) domestic in key countries, especially in the US and China.    All are complicated and the interregnum between one type of international system and whatever may come after will be prolonged, measured in decades. Along the way there will be stresses to be managed and recurring political, financial and economic crises to be navigated.  It will be a more than usually messy and unpredictable environment for East Asia and for the world for a quite long time to come. 

2.  “… while US leadership is still irreplaceable, the imperative of US leadership is no longer self-evident, both to other major countries and to many Americans who now question the burdens and sacrifices of global leadership.  America will in all probability look increasingly inwards for some time.   This is what it has been historically been prone to do after major wars, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the longest in American history.   It would thus be prudent to anticipate a global leadership deficit of some degree.”

3.  “The US and China will eventually grope and stumble their way towards a new modus vivendi. The questions that cannot now be answered are what the contours  of the future US-China relationship will look like; what trade-offs they will make between themselves; how long it will take to reach a new equilibrium; and what excitements the region will have to endure along the way?” 

4.  “In the 21st century, ‘normal’ politics is all too often dysfunctional.  This is a global phenomenon manifest in all polities legitimated by some variant of the notion of the sovereignty of the people. The experience of countries around the world has shown that the validation of politics by this 18th century political philosophy sooner or later sets up a dynamic that makes governance more difficult.”

    So what does all this mean for ordinary people and for companies? 

    As Bilahari notes, the world is going to remain highly unstable, for years to come.  It is not a multipolar world, but a NONpolar world.  America still has the clout to impose order, but it lacks the will do to so, after futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   Moreover, normal 18th. C.-style democracy has become dysfunctional, in a fragmented era of social-network protest. 

   For companies, strategy will need to be flexible, agile, rapid, alacritous.  Survivors will be those best able to react quickly and correctly to unanticipated changes.

   For individuals,  the precise opposite.  We cannot forecast labor markets, we do not know which skills, products, industries or even geographies will prevail.  So, best to look inward, identify our passions, and work to fulfill them,  irregardless of the typhoons raging around us.   This was always the best path.  It it even more so in the turbulent world that Bilahari Kausikan decribes.

    One more thing.  A USAToday Poll finds that young Americans have a strong impulse to contribute to their society – but not through politics.  Only 17% of Caucasians, and just 8% of all blacks, say they seriously considered running for elective office (at any level);   only 22% of college grads, and only 25% of those who earn $100k or more;  only 22% of men, and just 8% of women!    America’s dysfunctional politics, about to push the Obama administration off the fiscal cliff, will be dominated by second-rate scoundrels, precisely at a time when strong leadership is needed.

     How in the world do we get young Americans to clean up America’s political mess, which is polluting not just America but the whole world?

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital