Creative abrasion unleashes bold ideas

The way that innovative teams generate great ideas is through a process and a culture known as creative abrasion, where ideas are productively challenged.

If you bring together two or more people with different perspectives on a challenge who are willing to both advocate for their point of view and also really listen, they’ll come away with a third solution that’s distinct from what they originally came to the table with – and stronger.

So conflict is what creates innovative ideas and creative solutions. But for most of us it’s totally unnatural – even uncomfortable.

Follow these four steps to proactively encourage creative abrasion within your team in larger meetings or workshops.

Start with the end in mind
Clearly define the problem you want to solve in your session – and communicate it to all attendees in advance.

Set the expectation before hand that you want to have a really candid, open conversation, and hear everyone’s perspective. Ask people to come prepared with their ideas and gear up for a creatively abrasive discussion where conflict is expected.

Share an agenda or rough timescales so people are clear on priorities, e.g.

📝 I want to spend X minutes on this topic.

📝 I want to achieve the solution to X within the first X minutes.

📝 I expect to find a solution to X by the end of the meeting.

The prep step is an important way to get everyone on the same page and encourage people to formulate their own ideas and come mentally prepared for a creatively abrasive discussion.

Create a psychologically safe environment
Where there’s disagreement, there’s tension. That’s natural. Follow these top tips to build a safe space for creative abrasion.

💡 Set boundaries so that conflict in this session stays in the session. It’s not personal – it’s just business.

How? At the beginning of the meeting, set ground rules that any disagreements that emerge in this discussion stay within this session, and don’t spill over outside the meeting. Remind everyone that there’s no such thing as a stupid idea – and in fact you’re expecting expansive, blue sky thinking here.

💡 Be a facilitator – not a leader. It’s not your job to steer the ship here, even if you are the team leader. Instead take on the role of facilitator whose role is to unleash everyone’s brilliant ideas, and make sure all voices are heard. By leaving your own agenda and preconceptions at the door, you’ll be able to better mediate conflict and give every team member an equal platform to share or object to ideas.

How? Use a timer to limit each person’s airtime. Or for less formal sessions, keep an eye out for who hasn’t yet spoken, and interject to ask them for their thoughts.

💡 Designate your meeting space a safe space for conflict where everyone is encouraged to passionately debate and argue over ideas.

How? Nickname your meeting space The Senate for a period of time when you want to encourage debate. Having a physical space (even temporarily) where positive conflict is expected normalizes it – and also helps draw the line where conflict must end.

Lean into conflict
Conflict avoidance is natural – but it’s also unproductive.

If you disagree with something, you may be tempted to keep your thoughts to yourself to avoid conflict. But when you bottle up your views, it’s likely you’ll start to feel an even stronger opposition to the idea at hand.

Encourage your team to lean into positive conflict by agreeing these ground rules for creative abrasion sessions:

💬 If you disagree with something, speak up – but question the opposing idea rather than dismissing it out of hand.

💬 Don’t abandon someone else’s idea – take it seriously, ask questions to understand it fully, and suggest an improvement where possible.

💬 Be straightforward and clear in your views, but don’t make your judgment or critique personal.

💬 Seek to understand the rationale behind someone else’s idea – ask more questions to unpick their frame of view and the information or context they have that you may not.

💬 Don’t just criticize. When you critique someone else’s idea, explain your rationale and suggest a different way forward.

💬 Be mindful not to embarrass or put down your teammate by shutting down their idea. Remember that as a team you’ll ultimately need to converge and execute on the decision you come to as a group – so you don’t want to alienate anyone along the way.

💬 Try to bridge your ideas and others’ by exploring alternatives that use the best of both. Perhaps say something like, “That’s a great idea, maybe we could add this, or do this part of it slightly differently…”.

Evaluate & optimize

Reflecting on how things went will help you optimize your creative abrasion sessions moving forward. Think about what went well, and what could have been better – and ask your teammates for their feedback in your next 1:1 meeting.

How? Use the agenda and expectations you previously sent around to take stock:

  • Did you achieve everything you wanted?
  • Was it what you expected?
  • Did it go on for too long?
  • Did everyone have their say?
  • Were others happy with the outcome and the way forward?

☝️ A final note
Don’t get discouraged if your creative abrasion session didn’t work out as planned the first time around. Failure is good because it highlights what hasn’t worked, and encourages you to re-think new ways to approach a creatively abrasive discussion the next time. Use your learnings to inform a more productive session next time around.

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The bottom line?

Creative abrasion is unnatural and even uncomfortable – but also vital for finding innovative solutions. Gear up for a creatively abrasive meeting by defining goals and expectations, creating a safe environment, setting ground rules so everyone leans into conflict, and evaluating what worked to optimize next time around.

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