The Cost of Avoiding Conflict.

M’s team seemed to be really excited about the upcoming US launch of their product – but things didn’t seem right to M. He didn’t want to be the only naysayer in the room though, so he went along. However, in a casual conversation with a colleague on the team, it came up that she too, had her misgivings. Neither of them had spoken up though – and the launch was going ahead as planned.

How many times have we walked away from a meeting knowing we didn’t get to the optimal outcome because we were hesitant to engage in conflict or to push boundaries? And while it may seem insignificant at the time, these instances can add up to crucial wins or losses for the business.

In 1999, Pixar was on the verge of releasing its highly anticipated sequel, Toy Story 2. The film was well into production when the team realized that the original storyline was not working. The filmmakers faced a difficult decision: either stick with the flawed storyline and risk releasing a subpar film, or scrap the entire project and start over, risking delays and missed deadlines.

The team ultimately chose the latter, embarking on a massive overhaul of the film’s storyline. The process was painful and costly, leading to delays and a budget that was double what was originally planned. But in the end, the team emerged with a film that was far superior to what it would have been if they had stuck with the original storyline.

I’m sure this wasn’t an easy call to take. However, critique and conflict is built into the very culture of Pixar, and into the development of every single film they make. Bringing in people who aren’t involved with a film and creating the space for them to share their reactions – fully, honestly, with no holding back – is part of the process that has made Pixar so successful.

In contrast, the development of the Samsung Galaxy Note7 provides a cautionary tale of what can happen when we fail to challenge each other. In 2016, Samsung was on track to release its newest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy Note7. The phone was highly anticipated, with early reviews raising its design and powerful features.

However, soon after the phone was released, reports started emerging of the device overheating and catching fire. The problem was traced back to the phone’s battery, which had been rushed to market in an effort to beat Apple’s iPhone to market.

Despite early warnings and red flags, the company ignored the signs of impending disaster and continued to prioritize hitting its deadlines over addressing the underlying issue. The lack of productive conflict in the company culture meant that employees were hesitant to speak up or raise concerns about the quality of the product, leading to a catastrophic failure that cost the company billions of dollars and significant damage to its reputation.

History is rife with such examples – the Challenger disaster, the Nokia N-Gage launch, more recently Boeing’s 737 Max fiasco.

And yet, we continue to priorities speed or consensus over engaging in productive conflict, because the fact is, that’s what is more comfortable.

How do you break this tendency for your teams?

PS: In our work with teams, we use Pat Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions Model to build these critical pillars of trust and conflict. Because we believe teams become more than the sum of their parts only when all voices can be expressed, and truly heard.

About Srikanth Sarathy

In a career spanning over 20 years, Srikanth has worked on some of India's (and the world's) biggest brands, across India and Western Europe. He was instrumental in setting up two start-ups, a consumer engagement, and Word of Mouth company and then an Advertising Agency. He is now a Co-founder and leadership coach at The Core Questin

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