Give Yourself the “Infodiversity Advantage”
Having just finished up a season that included executive management consulting, training and lecturing for one of the most successful start-ups in history – a couple of folks and a crazy idea that is now a multi- billion industry called eBay – I found myself wondering: what did I learn?
After some consideration, my experience with the amazing leadership team at eBay taught me this: All too often we see conflict as weakness or even defeat – something to be eliminated when the opposite is actually true. When properly managed conflict is actually strength and the stirrings of greatness – something to be encouraged. Even accentuated.
A Flood of Inspiration
Years back, an expedition leadership experience taught me this lesson in a vivid, life-or-death way.
I was leading the first group ever to traverse through the deep and desperate North and South Forks of the Great West Canyon of Zion. Nightfall found us between rappels as the loud- filled sky turned to rain. A narrow alcove afforded us the only possible shelter. “We’ve go to get in out of the rain or we’ll all catch pneumonia!” argued some of the group. “Are you kidding?” argued the others. “If this rain keeps up there will be a flash flood and we’ll be trapped without any possible means of escape. We’ll drown to death for sure!”
A heated conflict ensued. Lives were at stake. Mutiny was in the humid air. Anarchy threatened. Finally a solution was agreed upon. I planted a stout aspen limb in the ground at my feet. We would set up our camp in the shelter of the overhang while sharing hour-long watches, I announced. The moment the rising water knocked the stick down we would gather up our gear and abandon camp. We would sleep warm and dry till then.
Around three in the morning the sentry on watch sounded the alarm. The stick was down. The water as rising. We spent the final hours before dawn huddled in rain. Wet but alive. Singing Christmas carols for no other reason that, even in mid July, they seemed like the only tunes appropriate to our shivering condition. When we later descended to see how our campsite had fared, I found that the water had risen nearly to the top of the cavern. Had we not departed at the appropriate moment we’d surely all have drowned. Diversity of opinion and positive resolution of conflict had saved our lives and given us a much needed five hours of sleep.
The Infodiversity Advantage
Conflict is no more than the representation of diverse opinions based on varied views and experience. As biodiversity represents the strength of an ecosystem and cultural diversity demonstrates the durability of a culture so ‘infodiversity’ – a broad range of seemingly oppositional beliefs and assumptions - is evidence of breadth, creativity and resilience in an organization.
What turns conflict into strength is leadership. As with my role in thrusting that aspen pole into the sand at the river’s edge, a leader must supply the vision. Excitement. Possibility. When individuals with divergent ideas are encouraged to communicate they grow increasingly confident. Confidence begets participation. A culture of participation is the key to organizational vitality and durability, creating environments of camaraderie and teamwork, cohesion and fellowship.
So when faced by conflict in your organization remember a few of the lessons I picked up from my inventive and successful friends at eBay: Don’t eliminate … accentuate. Don’t repress…. express. Why not have some fun? Take an extreme points of view out for road tests. Let the them (the ideas not their proponents) serve as intellectual crash test dummies for possible scenarios.
The polar opposite of this is fundamentalism – arguably the greatest danger the world faces today. Fundamentalism is nothing more than the suppression of the wisdom and beauty of diversity…. a rejection of the uplifting and informing possibilities of positive conflict.
As Gandhi-ji said: We must be the change we wish to see in the world. A great leap for humankind starts with the single steps we take everyday in our organizations and our lives.