Constructive Controversy

Improving Solutions by Arguing For and Against Your Options

Constructive Controversy

Seek out different perspectives.

© iStockphoto/EmiSta

"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.

What is Constructive Controversy?

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:

  1. We adopt an initial perspective towards a problem based on our personal experiences and perceptions.
  2. The process of persuading others to agree with us strengthens our belief that we are right.
  3. When confronted with competing viewpoints, we begin to doubt our rationale.
  4. This doubt causes us to seek more information and build a better perspective, because we want to be confident with our choice.
  5. This search for a fuller perspective leads to better overall decision making.

The resulting process is shown in Figure 1 below:

Constructuve Controversy Cycle Diagram

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...

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