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 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.

Creating Constructive Controversy

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:

Step 1: Brainstorm Possible Solutions to the Problem

Click here   for tips on how to do this most effectively.

Step 2: Form Advocacy Teams

Each team is given an alternative, researches it, and presents a best-case scenario supporting why that alternative should be chosen.

Step 3: Engage in Constructive Controversy

Use the following steps:

  • Each team presents its case to the wider group. The objective is to help the group understand the particular choice, and convince people of its validity.
  • 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.

    Here, Starbursting   is a useful technique for thinking about how you should challenge a proposal, and the 5 Whys   technique is a great tool to use for exploring someone's position.

  • The next team presents its case, and discussion follows. This continues until all teams have presented their positions.
  • Teams then reverse their positions and argue for one of the options they originally tried to argue against. Because people's perspectives are changed so dramatically, this is where you gain much of the new understanding.

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.

Step 4: Decide

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.

Tip:

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.

The "Rules" of Constructive Controversy

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:

  • Demonstrate mutual respect at all times.
  • Criticize ideas, not people.
  • Remember that they, as people, are not being criticized, just the ideas they're putting forwards at the time.
  • Focus on good decision-making, not winning.
  • Listen actively, and ask for clarification when necessary.
  • Commit to understanding all sides of an issue.
  • Are willing to change positions when the evidence suggests it's necessary.
  • Use rational arguments, including inductive and deductive logic, and draw conclusions based on evidence and well-structured reasoning.

Key Points

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.

Apply This to Your Life

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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Comment (1)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    As someone who questioned everything from a very young age (and often got into trouble about it!) I am very much in favour of a technique like 'Constructive Controversy'. However, sticking to the 'rules' is important since you don't want to create unnecessary conflict, you simply want to get people on different ends of the spectrum to share and listen to one another's ideas.
    If no-one ever questioned current methodology, we wouldn't have discovered the wheel as yet!

    Kind regards
    Yolandé

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