A fashionable management theory is floating through the ether in human resources departments and it should make you worried. It's called creative conflict or creative abrasion. Instead of striving for dull, nodding consensus, the idea goes, it's better to have an argument between prickly individuals – you are more likely to come up with new and better ideas.
Who could disagree? Most companies have had only one good idea: a better mousetrap or just one that is cheaper. But, if within the four walls of your head office, you could every day simulate the creative tension of the global marketplace, what wonders might follow?
Steve Jobs was keen. The late boss of Apple allegedly brought poets, historians and musicians into product strategy meetings with his engineers. He was notorious for his own abrasive manner but under his leadership Apple was both disruptive and highly successful.
Unfortunately, another company that likes to style itself as a technological innovator is reported to be taking the doctrine of creative abrasion even further into the conflict zone. At Amazon, says the New York Times, staff are encouraged to undermine each other in management meetings and send secret memos to the supervisors of office rivals, reporting their failures or shortcomings.
The article, which is based on interviews with current and former Amazon staff, describes a world of long, obsessive toil in which managers compete to amass reams of data to promote their own projects or demolish the efforts of others. Weakness, even in health, is not tolerated.
The Amazon corporate culture is not so much a creative environment as a Darwinian struggle to survive. Needless to say, Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and CEO, says the NYT's account is unrecognizable and insists that he himself would not work for such a company. Tellingly, however, in an internal message responding to the article, he urges staff to take note of anyone engaged in uncivilized behaviour and report the individuals directly to him.
Amazon seems to have pushed the idea of creative conflict further than anyone else and possibly to the point where it suppresses dissent and creativity. The phrase "creative abrasion" is said to have been coined by Jerry Hirshberg, the founder of automotive design firm Nissan Design International. He used it to describe the creative sparks that fly upwards on the collision of two big and opposing design brains.
But if the Hirshberg and Jobs creative dissonance is to lead to anything good, there must be a synthesis; out of the conflict of big ideas must come a new and better idea. It is not creative if the collision of management egos leads only to a war of attrition in which one or other manager is terminated, sidelined or drummed out of the firm.
In the latter case, we don't have innovation through creative conflict but the achievement of a brutal consensus or collectivism, enforced by the fear of failure. It is the classic pyramid of contempt that you find in totalitarian structures where the leader encourages a struggle for survival among the contenders for power and influence at lower levels.
There is, however, little doubt that creative conflict or abrasion is a compelling, almost romantic idea. It probably emerged from the adoption among the West Coast technology fraternity of Joseph Schumpeter's theory of creative destruction. The Austrian economist took a leaf from Karl Marx's historical materialism but instead of a titanic struggle between social classes, he interposed the notion that it was the disruptive innovations of entrepreneurs that were the driving force behind capitalism.
Schumpeter's vision that the disruption caused by new technologies and business processes was a force of both creation and destruction has underpinned more than a few messianic speeches by Silicon Valley tycoons. It is easy to see why those in the cozy and flattering world of the C-suite wondered if they could import the creative destruction of the wider economy into the jungle of open-plan offices, oppressive corridors and suffocating meeting rooms that lie beneath the boardroom.
It is not hard to see why a business that thrives on today's quirky notion of retail needs to promote a conflict of ideas. Think of design, advertising, the media. However, most industrial, service and even retail companies, need to promote consensus and trust. In a world where processes must be uniform, if only for product quality and safety considerations, a culture that values some degree of conformity is necessary. It is not surprising that businesses in the energy and chemical sector tend to have rigid conformist management structures.
The danger lies in an organization that seeks to use creative conflict as a management tool, rather than a strategy development technique. Reading the New York Times description of Amazon, it is not hard to imagine the organization as a hierarchy worthy of George Orwell's authoritarian dystopia in his novel, 1984.
At the bottom, a very large group of unskilled and low-paid proletariat with no stake in the organization; above them, a smaller middle tier of managers, hard-working, ambitious, fearful and suspicious of their colleagues; at the top, an inner circle wielding total power.
Not a few corporate cultures might be described cynically, thus. It's a way of running things that can achieve a certain degree of efficiency. But creative, it is not.
Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist and freelance consultant based in the U.K.