One of the essential characteristics of creative and highly innovative cultures is their ability to recognize and leverage conflict.

Granted, for any organization or team, one of the greatest challenges it faces is how to effectively manage competing interests, differing views, disagreement, and multiple mindsets, all of which are natural sources of conflict. However, when managed through the framework of design thinking, they’re also great contributors to innovation.

The struggle for most organizations and their leaders is in finding the right approach to confronting and realizing the potential for innovation that resides in the natural creativity that lives in the multitude of conflicts that they deal with. Conflicts are all too often avoided, thereby leaving the sources of innovation and creativity untapped. One of the most powerful solutions to finding the right “how” for many of the most innovative organizations is their use of design thinking.

Design thinking is a way of leading with creativity and it encourages embracing ambiguity and uncertainty. It offers a platform for managing diverse thinking and strategies and, in doing so, it offers the opportunity to curiously confront conflicts in a constructive way. In spending resources to teach design thinking to their members and develop it as a core competency, organizations leverage the benefit they get from using it as a management tool for converting disagreement into the fuel necessary for innovation.

In our research that led to the writing of our new book Innovation By Design, Thomas Lockwood and I identified ten attributes that the 21 highly innovative, design thinking organizations in our study group all possess. The one that we found to consistently lead to constructively managing conflict is Curious Confrontation. We define Curious Confrontation as: The ability to face differing ideas and mindsets with the desire to investigate and learn. When confronting conflict, it is the ability to act with curiosity that results in the intentional inquiry and appreciation of differing points of view and mindsets that inevitably results in healthy collaboration. 

Along with research that finds a sense of curiosity as a characteristic of genius, one’s curiosity quotient (CQ) is also a critical contributor to one’s level of social intelligence. Research shows that curious people have more friends, more significant relationships, and are viewed by others more highly than those with less curiosity. In light of their increased ability to be more inquiring, others see them as more considerate, interested, and empathetic. As a result, they are seen as more likable. Research also indicates that people who are curious are happier, healthier, more productive, and have better social relationships. The reality is that every organization has its struggles in dealing with the differing points of view, values, and beliefs we all have. As a result, we don’t generally listen to one another very well. While confronting conflict has more than its fair share of negative connotation attached to it, acting intentionally with curiosity sets the stage for the openness and trust necessary for free expression and higher levels of creativity and innovation. This, in turn, builds empathy.

Empathy is paramount for users of design thinking.

Through our research, we found that not only does design thinking provide a framework for people to express themselves, it also provides a platform for listening and empathy. Empathy, as displayed through genuine inquiry and expression, is paramount for users of design thinking. As the result of lessened levels of fear, empathy leads to the increased levels of emotional maturity and safety that directly impact how diverse views and ideas are constructively managed. This results in a significant influence on an organization or team’s culture. A cornerstone to how people interpret culture, and often the first impression that people get about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, is based on their experience of how disagreement and conflict are managed. More than at any other moment in time, people learn about the culture they’re in when they experience conflict and discover what feels safe, as well as what feels unsafe.

By asking how design thinking helps people manage disagreement and conflict in our research, we came to recognize the importance that curiosity plays in the intentional management of conflict as the source of innovation that it is. Curious Confrontation is the key attribute that consistently plays a role across our study group organizations to foster empathy and create healthy relationships that support teamwork and lead to innovation.

In summary:

  • Design thinking provides an effective tool for confronting and managing disagreement and conflict.
  • Organizations using design thinking have a belief in, and positive mindset about, curiosity.
  • People who use design thinking demonstrate better inquiry, empathy, and listening skills, which is key in managing disagreement and conflict effectively, and building trust.
  • Because design thinking skills can be applied to dealing with disagreement and conflict, confrontation happens in a more timely and healthier manner, thereby avoiding much of the dysfunction and consequences associated with avoidance.
  • Design thinking is a valued process for confronting disagreements and misalignment’s among functions, and their leaders, and effectively breaking down unhealthy silos.
  • This creates synergy, design thinking organizations leverage creativity.

Edgar Papke and Thomas Lockwood are the authors of Innovation By Design and founders of InnoAlignment, a consultancy dedicated to assisting leaders in designing and building cultures of innovation.


For our recently released new book, Innovation By Design, Thomas Lockwood and I conducted an in-depth study of 21 of the most innovative organizations in the world. As a result of our research, we identified 10 attributes they all share and that they use to leverage design thinking to produce change, drive new ideas, and deliver meaningful solutions.

We found ourselves asking two important questions:

  • As human beings, what motivates us to want to come together to innovate and create change with the intensity we do?
  • How do the organizations in our study group (among them SAP, IBM, LEGO, NZTE, GE Healthcare and Intuit) create and lead their innovative cultures?

These questions are among the most intriguing challenges that leaders of organizations continuously wrestle with.

We came to realize that the human energy that brings the 10 attributes together to make things work is The Collective Imagination: The natural desire of human beings to come together in community to collaborate, explore and learn, and create what we want. This is the fuel that provides the substance and underpinnings of our organizational cultures. The Collective Imagination provides the energy for creativity to freely flourish and feeds the innovation within an organization’s culture.  

In my book True Alignment, I provided a model for better understanding the desired alignment of the customer experience and branding with cultures of organizations and teams. The psychology behind this model uses FIRO-Theory as the groundwork science. Created by psychologist and author Will Schutz, FIRO-Theory suggests that all human behavior and interaction is motivated by three fundamental desires to feel: 1) Important and significant;
 2) Competent and capable; and, 3) Liked and accepted.

These are the same elements that also make up the motivational drivers of our human ability to innovate and act as the three pillars of The Collective Imagination: 1) Participation; 2) Pursuit of knowledge; and, 3) Free expression.




In innovative organizations, The Collective Imagination is at work through the behaviors of involvement, collaboration, and cooperation that result in the sharing of ideas, people paying attention to each other, and the subsequent leveraging of differing viewpoints, inferences, and opinions. The underlying influence that opens the door to successful collaboration among the members of an organization or team is the human need for inclusion. If we dig a little deeper, we find that this natural need for participation and connectivity has a great deal of influence on how people feel valued and respected. This is also what makes listening such a powerful aspect of design thinking. When we feel like we will be paid attention to, and not ignored, we show up, get involved, and share our ideas.

Pursuit of Knowledge

Innovative cultures are always hungry for ideas and thrive on finding new ways to understand our world and how human beings and nature function. Fueled by our innate desire to feel competent, have a sense of control, to know more, and to always do better, the pursuit of knowledge is the force of nature behind our ability to think critically, inquire, and ideate. This includes the analysis of data and the use of available criteria, and the seeking of new information to solve problems. In innovative cultures, analytics, data interpretation, and the creation of measurable feedback loops into the prototyping and iteration processes. These are means through which a focus on expanding what we know can become “What if?” questions. As human beings, we are never quite satisfied with what we have, nor what we know. The two are intertwined. To get more of what we want, we seek the knowledge necessary to create what we seek.

Free Expression

Our ability to freely express what we think, see, and feel, without the risk of being rejected or not being liked, offers the capability to engage in the unbridled creativity that results in the uninhibited generating of ideas, brainstorming, and the more imaginative and fearless expression of thoughts and feelings. The use of playful and artistic expression is evidence of this basic and yet powerful source of creativity. Fearless exploration is often at the heart of extraordinary innovations. It is important to recognize that free expression is the path through which we open ourselves to being vulnerable and intimate with one another, and express our feelings. In reciprocity, we are more apt to give empathy to those that allow us to communicate without inhibition or fear. Fearless expression is also one of the keys to imaginative communication. It provides us with the sense of childlike wonderment and deeper emotional connection to our work, as well as seeing business as an art form. It reminds us that business is art and that art is the creative expression of human emotion.



Put the three pillars in place, and you have the ingredients that manifest in The Collective Imagination and that provide the underlying motivation for our constant and ongoing quest to innovate. As important as the three pillars are to the successful application of design thinking, they are also essential to highly innovative cultures. In light of this, it’s important to note that you can’t succeed by relying on one or two of the three. As fundamental as they are, they are also fully interdependent, and therefore essential to creating success. This is why design thinking plays such a significant role in how innovative cultures attain success.

Unlike many other processes that have come and gone, and that have the aim of bringing the power of The Collective Imagination to the forefront, none has been as successful as design thinking. This is evidenced by the level of problem-solving and levels of success being achieved by the highly innovative organizations using it.

Edgar Papke and Thomas Lockwood are the authors of  Innovation By Design and founders of InnoAlignment, a consultancy dedicated to assisting leaders in designing and building cultures of innovation.