Managing Creative Friction in Your Project Team

Innovation is an essential success factor in organization deign and transformation. The ability to come up with fresh new ideas and innovative solutions is key to differentiation and market success.  In our article, Build the Right Project Team for Success, we discussed the benefits of working in small teams during times of change, and how to create a successful project team. A key factor in project team management that drives successful innovation is building a diverse team—one that includes diversity of skill, identity, background, and thought.

Bringing a diverse group of people together on a project tends to create a certain effect called creative friction. As different ideas, thought patterns, and beliefs play off each other, it can spur tremendous innovation—but sometimes this very energy and dynamism can be hard to control, or even result in unproductive conflict.

While it may seem better or easier to discourage conflict altogether, many studies show that well-managed, creative friction produces better results on project teams than those where conflict is minimized. As leaders set up their diverse teams, they should be aware of the potential for discord and take steps to prevent or manage it where possible, while still allowing for a healthy amount of creative friction to happen between team members.

7 Conflict Prevention Principles for Project Team Management

Managing the delicate balance between creative friction and unproductive conflict can often feel like tending a campfire. Too much creative friction can cause tempers to flare, resulting in hurt feelings and members shutting down. Not enough friction, and the magic is never brought to fruition. Practicing these quick project team management tips can help your team stay in that productive middle ground, and set the stage for success:

  1. Set the rules upfront.  It is important for all team members to have a common understanding of what the rules and tolerance threshold regarding communication and behavior towards others will be for the project. Discuss this as a team, and involve the team in creating additional rules when appropriate.
  2. Set the tone.  As the leader or organizer of the project team or group, it is imperative that you quickly and directly establish your team environment as one that values diversity of skill, identity, background, and thought. Set the tone with your team right away by addressing the values that will govern the team and uphold respect for all team members.
  3. Identify intrinsic skills.  For each team member, publicly acknowledge one or two of the key intrinsic skills they possess that are needed for the project. This serves two purposes: 1. It reinforces the specific skills the project leader wishes to accentuate from the participant and 2. It informs each team member of the others’ intrinsic skills. When these are shared and understood upfront, it tends to foster a community of collaboration and respect for each other’s talents and the specific value each person brings to the team.
  4. Create a framework for input channeling. Input from all members of the diverse team needs to be channeled in a productive way. Without an effective channeling mechanism in place, some members may drown out other’s input, effectively limiting the collective creative potential of the team. Input channeling can be done in many ways ranging from using a narrator/facilitator to using emails or project management software to consolidate and distribute team members’ input to the quorum as a whole.
  5. Challenge assumptions.  Challenging assumptions and fostering an environment of unrestrained strategic thinking is usually where the best discoveries are birthed. In many cases, a disruption process is needed to spark a series of thoughts that lead to the brilliant idea. This can be done by simply annotating and questioning the current assumptions. It can also be done through a technique such as backwards mapping wherein you begin with the result in mind first and build the solution map backwards from the desired end state. The key is to challenge each step in the process by asking critical questions that breed discovery and new ideas.
  6. Challenge each other.  Within the precedence of the tone already established and under the rules established by the group, members should challenge each other’s ideas. The reason for this is very simple. If ideas or concepts remain unchallenged within the group, they quickly take on the shape of fact instead of assumption. Assumptions tend to be questioned and discussed, but once a concept goes unchallenged by the group, it is usually adopted (sometimes even unconsciously) as a factual statement and will therefore rarely be addressed again causing creative myopia. This is inherently where positive creative friction can easily degenerate into unproductive conflict. A key point here to keep the creative fires under control is to challenge the idea, not the person.
  7. Be mindful.  Even if you follow all the steps above, the passions of the project or the company may still impact team members in ways that are not always visible. Look for opportunities to recognize and praise the contributions of your team members. Pay attention to any members that overly dominate the team or, conversely, any members that start to withdraw from the team—these are clear indicators that there may be a lack of ideal productivity balance on your team.

If you desire to foster an environment of creative friction, be careful to exercise your project team management plan within the principle guidelines of company values, including respect and mindfulness. Otherwise, these attempts are sure to backfire and may actually cause more harm than benefit. I once witnessed a president of a large corporation berate the executive team through demeaning comments and belittlement. This person’s actions were rationalized under the guise of creative friction, without concern for others or the corporate values posted in the board room.

Defusing Conflict Proactively

Creative friction is a deliberate process that can produce exceptional results when the conditions are set mindfully and the parameters, environment, and leaders understand the complexity of the dynamics involved. By following the key steps to project team management introduced above, your project teams are much more likely to experience the benefits of creative friction and avoid the pitfalls of unproductive conflicts.