Encouraging Creative Conflict: Form, Storm, Top Gun
If you have any designs on management, it’ll help your cause to learn some of the more iconic bits of that problem domain’s lore. Software people would be more impressive at cocktail hour by being able to speak intelligently about object oriented vs structured vs functional programming or about relational vs document databases. Management people would be more impressive at their own cocktail hours being able to bandy about Drucker, lean principles, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And if you hang out at enough of these cocktail hours, you will be unable to avoid Tuckman’s stages of group development.
The short version of these stages is the catchy rhyme, “form, storm, norm, perform.” The groups starts off being polite and feeling one another out, but they’re more or less too deferential to make serious progress. After a bit, egos and tempers flare, people jockey for influence and rivalries emerge — the group ‘storms.’ Only once the team has duked it out and subsequently hugged it out can they move on to ‘norming,’ wherein they gruffly put up with one another’s peccadilloes in pursuit of a common goal. And, finally, in the end, they all live happily ever after, humming along as a well-oiled machine.
Of course, this not only applies to feel-good stories of organizational politics, but also to about 90% of action movies in the history of the planet. Whether it’s erstwhile enemies Maverick and Iceman agreeing to wingman each other at the end of Top Gun or the romance plot between Han, Leia and Luke eventually sorting itself out, we all get warm fuzzies when the former stormers become performers. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Everyone likes a good tale of “form, storm, norm, perform.”
We like it so much, in fact, that I commonly hear variants of the idea that teams should be encouraged to ‘storm.’ It’s something like, “we want a team full of people that engage in fierce, angry debate to surface the best ideas, then, when 5:00 rolls around, they let it all go and happily go out to dinner.” I’ve heard this described as “harnessing creative conflict,” or some such, and it echoes the management (Hollywood) narrative that through challenging one another and letting emotions run high, a catharsis of sorts occurs and all participants come out more creative and more closely bonded for their ordeal. It’s an appealing notion, and it’s also the epitome of the “extrovert ideal.”
The extrovert ideal was a term coined (I think) in Susan Cain’s, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.” It refers to the notion that society has deemed extroversion the ‘correct’ choice between introversion and extroversion. “Storm to perform” is very much an extrovert thing. But I’ll return to that later.
My Story, Such as It Is
I’m an introvert that strongly exhibits half of the type A characteristics (impatience, ambition, tendency toward being a workaholic). As a result, I’m intensely subject to gamification in automated feedback scenarios, and I can get extremely competitive, under the right circumstances. You won’t catch me getting worked up over a game of darts in a bar (or really caring), but for things that are more core to existence, I don’t mess around. Perhaps the best example was my approach to school.
In junior high school, I was a half-interested B student, relying on improvisation at test time since I wasn’t particularly diligent about homework or study. When I arrived at high school in the 9th grade, they introduced the concept of “class rank,” and the impact on me was profound. I became a straight A student and graduated valedictorian of my class. Suddenly, grades had a broader purpose that was objectively (ish) measured, and I couldn’t resist that challenge.
As an adult, this drive has been tempered with more subtle and less overtly ranked goals. I chase lifestyle goals now, rather than some kind of simple metric like “number of direct reports” or “income.” I value freedom, autonomy, room to be creative, and unbounded potential for endeavors I undertake, and I view things threatening those goals as obstacles to be removed. For instance, I’ve arrived at a largely remote working arrangement because I couldn’t accept the standard narrative of, “you go to work 5 days a week and that’s just how it is.” Whereas others would make peace with that, I relentlessly hack my life to look for a way around/past it.
When it comes to working arrangements, I prefer politeness and harmony when I interact with others. In the case of disagreements, I prefer to appoint an imaginary Solomon to split the baby. You like a lot of global state in your code? Hey, Bob’s your uncle — why don’t you do the processing module, I’ll do the ETL stuff, and we’ll measure empirically which approach has more defects? As I’ve said before, I’m an appeaser, and arguing with someone about global variables becomes tiresome for me if progress is not made quickly.
So what happens when I’m forced into a situation that brings two areas of my personality into conflict? What happens when you take a conflict-avoiding, competitive, impatient introvert and corner him with forced storming? It’s not particularly pretty, and it’s not particularly productive.
Introverts and Conflict
Near the end of her book about introverts, Susain Cain includes a section that speaks to the ways introverts and extroverts tend to deal with one another, particularly in relationships. She offers a case study, so to speak, of a romantic introvert-extrovert pairing, and talks about how each come away unhappy from disagreements. The extrovert man wants to yell, scream, and talk it out, while his introverted wife wants that stimulus to stop and both of them just to cool off and revisit the argument later.
In explaining this dynamic, Cain cites a study that had groups of people engage in collaborative and then competitive work. It recorded their feelings after each type of work. The results were interesting, particularly to me. Introverts felt more positively about people they collaborated with, and more negatively about people they competed against. The opposite was true for extroverts. It is precisely because of this dynamic that I deem the notion of “encouraged storming” as emblematic of the extrovert ideal. Extroverts like arguing passionately about things and would thrive in a situation of “harnessed creative conflict.” But introverts really don’t like this at all.
I can’t speak for others, but I can speak for myself about what happens when I’m forced into situations like this. As I said, it’s not pretty. If I’m forced into arguments with people that are friends, I feel temporarily annoyed, but the relationship remains unscathed. If I’m forced into it with acquaintances or strangers (far more likely in work situations), the “creative conflict” leads to me disliking the conflict-provokers and regarding them more or less as enemies.
But I’m not especially theatrical, so “enemy” in my world translates to, “obstacle” and these people achieve the same status in my life as the idea that work is 9-5, brick and mortar, and that’s just that. They become problems to be solved so that I can resume enjoying my life. And, since dealing with crusaders and creative conflicters takes me down a rung on Maslow’s hierarchy, dispatching them tends to take priority over doing my best quality of work.
Assuming that I can’t avoid the sustained conflict through division of labor or through leaving the team (which is a strategy I’d be pursuing in parallel), I could theoretically just give in and check out, but that’s not really my style. The remaining option is to end the conflicts by shock and awe. If I make the result of each clash intensely negative for my opponent, he will eventually come to regard the conflict as politically and socially untenable. And, in order to do that, I need to devote a lot of time and energy to research, argument planning, and creating bullet-proof responses to anything he might say.
At first blush, this might sound like the exact purpose of creative conflict — spurring the competitors to challenge one another and letting the best idea win. But what they’re hoping for is hour-long arguments next to a whiteboard, followed by consensus and team focus. They’re not hoping for an hour-long argument by the whiteboard followed by one party checking out of the moment, and then spending several days going back to research all of the points in question only to rehash and reverse the argument later.
The natural thing to say to me at this point would be, “wasting time rehashing ‘settled’ arguments is your choice and not a fault of the creative conflict approach.” Just as you could argue with those who simply give up and check out in the face of crusaders are making an inferior choice as well. And that’s a fair point, except that I’d ask you to recall that I’ve already attempted two remediation strategies that don’t involve this behavior. I know myself, so I seek to avoid conflict on the team and, failing that, I seek to find a team more suited to my preferred style of interaction. I’m only in the situation mentioned here if you’ve backed me into a corner in spite of my objections.
Think of it this way, at the risk of using an unflattering analogy. A ‘recovering’ alcoholic has conceded a personality weakness when it comes to alcohol. His remediation strategy is to avoid and abstain, but, if something like a wedding forces a situation where avoid isn’t possible, he simply abstains. If you force him to go to the wedding, hand him a glass of champagne, and tell him that his non-participation in toasts is ruining the wedding, you’re hardly blameless when he ties one on. Sure, in an ideal world, everyone could just enjoy a few sips of champagne and not make a travesty of it, but that theory will be cold comfort to the bride and groom after the drunk has thrown up on the wedding cake.
Creative Conflict, Reconsidered
By some estimation, up to a third of the world is introverted. I’m also willing to wager dollars to donuts that this figure increases substantially in a line of work that promises long stretches of uninterrupted quiet with only a computer for company. So, let’s call it half of the programming world.
If you want to have a team full of programmers that argue passionately and gesticulate emphatically around a whiteboard because you believe that will raise everyone’s game, understand the peril therein. This will energize half of the team and encourage them to bond even while it fosters unhappiness and resentment in the other half. Making the unhappy half of the team feel that they’re somehow defective for not enjoying this situation will not serve to spur actual enjoyment — it will just spur them to hide their misery until they can make good on on their own coping strategies.
A team full of people comfortable enough to argue with one another and leave those arguments at the door after work is unquestionably a good thing. It means that you’ve got a mix of extroverts and introverts that are friends. But you can’t force this dynamic, and you can’t be assured that it’s productive. Because even if the relationships are preserved, that doesn’t mean that team members are at their most effective while arguing or that the right ideas win instead of those put forth by the most loud and persistent people.
Forget any management or team building strategy that offers characterizations of or solutions for the team without bothering to understand its composition. Sure, it’d be nice if a team’s narrative followed that of Top Gun or Star Wars, but there’s a reason those things are escapist fantasy and not stories of how you implemented a CRM extension ahead of schedule. Monitor your team carefully for productive outcomes, happiness, and job satisfaction and figure out what the blockers are. That’ll get you a lot further than telling them what should make them happy, satisfied and productive, and waiting for them to shoot down MiGs and blow up death stars.