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DESIGN DIPLOMACY | Engaging conflict as an integral part of the creative process

Questions I want to explore:

Why are solutions for many of the world’s trickiest problems never fully realized? For that matter, why do we often find it difficult to solve much smaller, more local problems within our own businesses or communities?

Let’s assume that the know-how and resources exist – what’s stopping us from applying them?

Most of the time there are simply too many obstacles standing in the way - conflicting opinions, perspectives, information, and agendas to name a few.  It can be easier to dilute or altogether abandon the big idea.

As a design leader, I’ve often wondered why conflict is not more proactively addressed as part of the creative problem solving process.  Why are we not as eager to develop conflict management skills as we are to develop brainstorming or prototyping skills?  Instead of trying our best to avoid conflict, work around it, overpower it, or ‘resolve’ it in ways that make it disappear as quickly as possible, why not work through it?  Why not change the dynamic and call it ‘conflict engagement’ instead?

I'm on a quest to bring mediation and conflict engagement techniques to designers, entrepreneurs, and businesses participating in the creative process associated with bringing innovations to life.  Similarly I’m interested in introducing creative design techniques to attorneys, mediators and civilians participating in the traditional mediation process.

Relevant facts and historical examples:

Thinking back over my 25 plus years of wide-ranging professional experiences, I recognize clues that this topic has been rattling around in my brain in various ways for a long time:

As an architecture student in the 1980’s…

  • …I experienced the “jury system” of project evaluation, a process that was meant to promote constructive conflict but which felt more like overt criticism. How can students be more formally prepared to engage in conflict?
  • …I experienced only one design studio over ten semesters where we worked as a team, despite the fact that professional practice always involves multiple contributors. How can this kind of conflict-producing reality be introduced into an academic setting?

As an architect in the early 1990’s…

  • …I attended a weekend seminar at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design that focused on the future of the profession and began to realize how misunderstood the profession was to the general public that actually purchased architecture and design services. How can this kind of ‘silent conflict’ be averted?

As a management consultant in the late 1990’s…

  • …I developed some experimental proposals to better integrate ‘strategy’ with ‘design’ even though business consultants and innovation consultants didn’t speak the same language and had conflicting agendas when it came to engaging the client. Things have changed a lot in the past decade or two, but how can we reduce the conflict of cultures between these disciplines?

As an innovation consultant in the early 2000’s…

  • …I and my IDEO colleagues began evangelizing the relationship of human factors (desirability), business factors (viability), and technical factors (feasibility) required to conceptualize new ideas. When it comes to execution, however, this is often much easier said than done.  How can we leverage the inevitable conflict between these factors to produce a successful outcome?
  • …I became concerned by the misalignment of client expectations relative to consultant scope of work and drafted an drafting an article called “How to Be a Good Client”…
  • …and also prototyped a workshop on “Consultmanship” to help designers better engage with clients and ask ourselves how can we take a more proactive, service-oriented approach to guiding the innovation process?

As a senior leader within various organizations in the 2010’s…

  • …I wrote a blog post on “What We Can Learn from Project Runway” when I saw one of the show’s team challenges which revealed that it takes more than just raw talent to be successful in a creative industry. How can mass media help enhance the general public (and future designers’) understanding of the way that interpersonal conflict can help or hinder successful outcomes?
  • …I finally took the 40-hour certification course in mediation, after facilitating years of workshops, meetings, and retreats, and discovered the remarkable parallels between mediation techniques used to resolve conflict and design thinking techniques used to discover new ideas. How can these be approaches inform each other?

Discoveries I hope to find, or have made:

I would like to confirm my hypotheses about classic ‘conflict’ scenarios or triggers that occur during any phase of the creative process.

I would like to hear stories about how they are typically handled.

I would like to understand if there might be demand for a different kind of approach to ‘conflict resolution’ services or ‘conflict engagement’ skill-building in organizations of all kinds but especially those that employ design teams.

Actions that I envision myself taking as a creative leader:

Developing a practice for working with teams or even individuals (in academia, start-ups or established enterprises) to resolve conflict and/or help teams productively work with conflict.

Developing an academic curriculum for teaching (at design schools, business schools, maybe even kids) to inform the creation of DIY tools.

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