Creative abrasion: Why conflict is key to team cohesion

Team dynamic is incredibly important to the success of a project but often overlooked and assumed that simply having talented engineers is good enough. Forming teams is extremely difficult but it should be a conscious effort. Just putting skillsets together is not good enough because personalities and people matter.

Creative abrasion is a phrase coined by Jerry Hirshberg, founder and president of Nissan Design International and describes a culture where ideas are productively challenged. A concept that is all too often seen as dangerous by managers and naturally so. They see a clash of ideas as "conflict" and conflict results in an uneven keel that most managers feel they have to suppress. In fact, the opposite is true. Creating an environment of diversity where opposing approaches grate up against each other is greatly successful in fostering innovation. It forces people to truly evaluate their approach and decision-making.

Perhaps one of the most popular advocates of creative abrasion was Steve Jobs. When creating the Apple Macintosh he hand picked a team of engineers and completely separated them from the rest of the business. The people he chose were intentionally diverse in their personalities. He hired poets, historians, musicians who also just happened to be great engineers. In doing so he formed a team with conflicting cognitive biases, decision making and problem solving processes and left/right brain thinking.

How can you foster creative abrasion

The theory behind creative abrasion is simple, putting it into practice is difficult for so many reasons. It is made more difficult if your organizational culture doesn't foster this mindset, if you're not the hiring manager or if senior managers see conflict as inherently bad.

That being said there are things you can do. Start by pairing people with often opposing viewpoints, who advocate different technologies. Hire people who are opinionated. That's not to say you're hiring them only because they're opinionated but ask yourself "is this person opinionated for the right reasons?".

Finally promote an environment of free thinking and loose process. Giving people the freedom to be self-directed and a process that allows them to step back from the problem and suggest a better way.


Personally, some of the best working relationships I've experienced are with people who I've had heated debates with. Those that couldn't care less about hierarchy, job titles or roles but who care more about doing the right thing. They don't argue or make conflict for the wrong reasons or for personal gain but believe passionately about what they're proposing and who aren't afraid to let it be known.

All too often organizations frown upon conflict or "heated debate". Indeed, it's difficult to manage and know when conflict is negative to the team. Ultimately it's better than having an organization of delegation, hierarchy and yes men/women.