In today’s politically charged climate, “debate” has become a dirty word. Yet, the slander and hurt feelings that are often associated with debate are far from its essence.
We help people come together, leverage their organizational knowledge to think better, and move forward by developing shared innovative solutions. In order to effectively leverage each other’s individual knowledge and create a new collective idea that did not previously exist, individuals must first develop a comprehensive understanding of the current state by sharing their existing knowledge. Inevitably, conflicting emotions and thoughts emerge during this process.
When you are faced with new information that does not agree with your current understanding, an unsettling feeling often emerges. This level of discomfort is frequently called “creative tension” or “conflict” and considered detrimental to collaboration. Yet, cognitive discomfort is an essential ingredient of effective collaboration and how you resolve it defines the difference between stagnancy and innovation.
Jean Piaget, a pioneer in cognitive and developmental psychology, argues that people are naturally driven to resolve what he termed cognitive dissonance, the feeling of discomfort caused by holding two differing ideas, and achieve cognitive equilibrium.
Piaget believed that this innate drive to achieve cognitive equilibrium stimulates cognitive development. It is the experience of the discomfort caused by holding two conflicting ideas that drives us to make sense of them and develop new ideas. Thus, discouraging the discomfort of conflicting ideas during collaboration denies people the opportunity to work through it and achieve innovation.
Avoiding or wilting in the face of cognitive dissonance may be an easy way to evade discomfort, but it is a direct course to arrested organizational development.
Piaget posited that there are two positive ways to process new information in order to achieve cognitive equilibrium. You can make sense of the new information by assimilating it, reinterpreting it to agree with your existing knowledge, or through accommodation, reconstructing your old ideas to include the new information. For example, a child may see a small leafy object that has roots, branches, and green foliage and through the process of assimilation call it a “tree.” After observing its smaller size and greater number of main stems, the child may determine through accommodation that the object is a plant.
We often employ the Socratic Method when we bring people together to encourage the process of assimilation and accomodation. Active investigation catalyzes participants to question their assumptions, free themselves from the weeds of their everyday routines, and build a shared innovative solution from their individual ideas.
The next time you are in a meeting or working with colleagues and you begin to experience a level of discomfort because you disagree with someone else’s idea, embrace it. You are at the doorstep of innovation!