Innovative inquiry means conflict (but the cognitive kind)

Margaret Heffernan in her 2012 TED talk cites the female physician Alice Stewart, who applied patterns to epidemiology. Dr. Stewart was interested in why children were dying of cancer, about 25 of them succumbing to the disease each week. This was in the 1950s.

Dr. Stewart found the patterns in the data. It was the strongest correlation between cancer in children and their mothers who had been x-rayed when they were pregnant.

It was 25 years before the medical establishment faced the relationship between childhood cancers and x-raying pregnant mothers of those children.

“The data was out there, it was open, it was freely available. But nobody wanted to know,” says Heffernan.

Dr. Stewart worked with a statistician named George Kneale who said of his task, “My job is to prove Alice Stewart wrong.” He was actively working on the patterns with the intent of disproving Dr. Stewart’s hunch. To do this, he approached the data in different ways to her models. He did this because he realized that it was “only in not being able to prove that she was wrong that he could give her the confidence she needed to know that she was right.”

Margaret Heffernan suggests that “it is a fantastic model of collaboration. Thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers.”

Heffernan suggests that there are four things we can do to create a collaborative partnership that challenges thinking and creates the necessary cognitive pressures to forge truly triumphant ideas. These are:

  • Dialog with people who have different mental models and ways of knowing.
  • Avoid collaborative clustering around people who always agree with us in problem-solving.
  • Seek out people who have different backgrounds and disciplinary expertise.
  • Engage with these diverse team members in collaborative problem-solving.

Cognitive conflict is highlighted as a necessary strength in innovative teams. The necessary energy that goes into these quests for collaborative cognitive wrestling is akin to love – because the energy and effort it takes to face inquiry rather than advocate to a quick conclusion is simply the act of caring enough to allow it.

In our schools, there is tough data out there: data that seems negative descriptions of our work. And the task of examining this data and using cognitive conflict to use the data to improve how learning happens, is a challenge. 

When we cultivate a culture of innovation through inquiry, harnessing the creative powers of cognitive conflict in our collaboration, we emerge with stronger ideas. And, Heffernan suggests, we emerge as caring teams. 

Thinking organizations, says Heffernan, are those who don’t fear conflict. Eighty-five percent of executives she has spoken to for her research admit they won’t bring up an issue because of fears. “Fear of the conflict that would provoke, afraid to get embroiled in arguments that they did not know how to manage, and they felt that they were bound to lose.”

And, not only do the organizations lose opportunities to make ideas better, but they also fail to get the best thinking out of their teams.

Disagreement may be unsavory for many. It may seem like a waste of energy. But think of the price of being agreeable for the sake of harmony — creative problem solving is silenced, and we may never be able to massage ideas from good to great.

When we think about the uncertainty our VUCA world presents now, we need open-minded thinking in our organizations more than ever. The problems we face are new and have no tried-and-true precedent solutions. 

Can we be open enough and flexible enough to allow cognitive conflict into our teams, and cultivate a culture of problem-solving and innovation? Can we set aside our fears for creativity to flourish in our teams?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Here is Margaret Heffernan’s 2012 TED talk.

Featured Photo by Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash.


Interested in more about collaboration? My book The 8 Hour Action Plan dives into how to use collaboration in a process for a thinking organization.

Author: alavina

Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at http://learnertoolbox.com.

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