Buying a Ticket to Conflict

Steve Roberts black ink drawing: head with swirling ribbons leading from third eye

Like taking a shower while wearing a raincoat, it’s hard to fulfill our heart’s desire if we’re attached to avoiding conflict.  Few actions are more contrary to the passionate pursuit of anything really special––like, say, having a peaceful heart, or being a good parent, or growing professional chops, or creating an organization that responds well to anything.

If excellence is what we’re after on any terms whatsoever, conflict is among the few things we can count on––regularly, maybe even non-stop if we’re paying attention.  Because there’s hardly a moment we’re not confronting something we must lovingly embrace that lives in the space between who we are and who we can become.  This is true for any human being, of course.  It’s just really in-your-face for those who aspire not to settle for less than their best.

A disclaimer, August 2013: What I wrote below 16 months ago was stimulated by the book Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer.  As it pertains to this and other writings of his, Mr. Lehrer has lost some credibility in certain circles because of “self-plagiarization” (re-using material he published elsewhere first without stating that is the case) among other ethical and intellectual shortcomings.  Regardless of whatever Mr. Lehrer’s lapses may have been, and how they taint his writing, I find certain stories worth chewing on.  Which is why, rather than un-publish this post, I continue to offer it.

You’re probably familiar with the term “brainstorming.”  It’s been around for more than 60 years and is considered the most popular creativity technique of all time.  Its purpose is to extract the best ideas from a group.  The most important principle of brainstorming is the absence of criticism.  If people are scared of saying the wrong thing, the theory goes, they’ll end up saying nothing at all, thus limiting the freewheeling associations brainstorming is designed to enable.

Pretty cool, eh?  Be saturated in positive feedback, leave sessions proud of our contributions, participate in filling up a white board with the spontaneous sparks of  unchained imagination.  As Lehrer points out, there’s so much to like about brainstorming, except one thing: it doesn’t work.

What does work, it turns out, when it comes to generating ideas in quantity and quality that actually move a problem toward healthy resolution, is criticism and debate.  Lehrer cites various researchers who’ve demonstrated the fallacy of our natural assumption that negative feedback stifles exploration.  Au contraire.  Our imagination is not meek––it doesn’t wilt in the face of conflict.  Lehrer quotes one researcher who contends that the reason criticism leads to more new ideas is that it encourages us to fully engage with the work of others.  We think about their concepts because we want to improve them.  It’s the imperfection that leads us to really listen.  By contrast, when everybody is “right”––when all new ideas are equally useful, as in a brainstorming session––we stay within ourselves.

Among the more noteworthy examples of criticism and debate in action, according to Lehrer, can be found at Pixar Animation Studios, which, as of this writing says Wikipedia, has produced twelve films (beginning with Toy Story in 1995), all of which are among the fifty highest grossing animated films of all time, and have won Pixar a total of 26 Academy Awards.

As Lehrer tells the story, every day at Pixar starts with a few dozen animators and computer scientists analyzing the few seconds of film produced the day before.  No detail is too small to tear apart in this meeting that can last until lunch.  The beauty of this daily candid discussion has many facets.  The team assumes responsibility for success, which includes catching mistakes and correcting them.  Everyone gets to learn from the mistakes of everyone else.  Criticism includes what’s called “plussing,” not only identifying flaws but also making positive suggestions for how to fix them, all without harsh or judgmental language.  And because everyone knows that any shortcomings in their work will be corrected by the group, they are less concerned with perfecting their contribution, which leads to more candid conversations.

I’m just guessing that not everybody at Pixar is Mother Teresa, so I’m sure the picture I’ve just painted is a lot rosier than the reality.  What’s courageous and worth emulating, then, if you ask me, is simply their willingness every day to step up, buy a ticket and welcome conflict as the incomparable teacher it is.

That Pixar, for 17 years, has enjoyed achievement unmatched by most other organizations in the world suggests that the rewards of such willingness are not out of the reach of any of us.

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