Seek out different perspectives.
"What do you think about this as a way ahead?"
"Can I get your feedback on this?"
"Do you think this will work?"
In general, we like to consult others when there's a problem to solve or a decision to make. We do this because we know that, as individuals, we have limited perspectives; and what may at first appear to be the best solution from one vantage point may no longer seem so after we've seen a fuller picture.
Involving other people – who inevitably have different perspectives and views – helps us ensure that we've considered solutions from all possible sides. It forces us to consider the options, and make sure that we make decisions for the best reasons.
So, what's the best way to draw on other people's experience so that the solution we finally choose is indeed the best?
Constructive Controversy is a powerful technique for doing this. Its objective is to test a proposed solution by subjecting it to the "clash of ideas", showing it to be wrong, proving it, or improving it. As such, by using Constructive Controversy, your confidence in the solution chosen improves as you reach a better understanding of all the factors involved.
This problem-solving approach was introduced by David Johnson and Roger Johnson in 1979. It has been researched and validated, and it's recognized as a leading model for developing robust and creative solutions to problems. The technique draws on five key assumptions:
The resulting process is shown in Figure 1 below:
The more times you go through the cycle, the closer you come to the "truth" or the "right" solution.
Using Constructive Controversy tends to produce better solutions, compared with solving problems using consensus, debate, or individual effort. This happens because the Constructive Controversy process forces you to face your assumptions and avoid drawing conclusions too quickly. At the same time, it pushes you to use clear reasoning to defend or argue against a position, and it helps to protect you from logical fallacies and blind spots , because you're forced to explain and defend your rationale.
Constructive Controversy is not about simply arguing and creating conflict for its own sake – it follows a formal procedure to manage controversy in a positive way:
Click here for tips on how to do this most effectively.
Each team is given an alternative, researches it, and presents a best-case scenario supporting why that alternative should be chosen.
Use the following steps:
The other teams then have the opportunity to argue against the position. This is an open discussion – the presenting team listens to the counter-arguments, tries to disprove them, and defends its original position as best it can.
The emphasis is on logic and critical thinking. Remind the teams that the overall objective is to gain a better understanding of all options in order to make the best decision possible. Encourage them to ask for solid data, and push the team to defend its conclusions.
Note: You can repeat this step so that everyone has an opportunity to argue for each alternative. If time is limited, however, you may want to narrow the choices down to two possible options before you start this step, so that there are only two advocacy teams.
Now's the time to drop the advocacy roles, and bring the group together to make a final decision. Take the time to explore what people have learned from the Constructive Controversy process, and then bring together ideas to create a final proposal.
Make sure that you evaluate this proposal to ensure that the outcome is better than the status quo. After all, you don't want to spend a lot of money and hard work, just to make the situation worse. Our article on Go/No-Go Decisions will help you do this.
You may choose to include a post-decision evaluation session as well. This helps you find ways of improving the next Constructive Controversy session that you decide to run.
Before trying to use Constructive Controversy, it's important to lay down ground rules for it. After all, you need people to work together positively and co-operatively, with a view to arriving at a best possible solution. By contrast, if people compete with one another, then they will probably want to "win" at all costs, and you're more likely to create problems between advocacy teams than improve their collective understanding.
As such, ensure that participants do the following:
Constructive Controversy is an effective tool for developing well-rounded solutions to problems, especially when you use it in the right setting and ensure that participants have the skills to manage this type of structured conflict.
The key is to adopt different perspectives to gain a better understanding of the problem as a whole – meaning that the solution arrived at is likely to be improved significantly. Constructive Controversy is a time-consuming, highly structured process. However, when used to tackle significant problems, the benefits of using such a thorough technique can be enormous.
You can practice Constructive Controversy on a smaller scale when time and circumstances don't allow for a fully structured event. Do this when the impact of the solution is far-reaching enough to justify more investigation, or when you have to make a decision on your own and you want to check its validity before implementing it.
Ask one or more colleagues to help you by proposing an alternative, whether or not they may truly believe it's a better option. Proceed with a small-scale Constructive Controversy process, where you present and defend your choice, and they do the same for their choices.
Alternatively, ask a colleague to play "devil's advocate" – to argue against your choice as you present it.
By using elements of Constructive Controversy, you acknowledge that adopting a wider perspective can improve your overall creative problem solving. This realization alone will help you solve problems more effectively.
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