Managers want organizations to run smoothly. They like to create harmony and stamp out conflict. But sometimes that can be a mistake. Conflict can be a sign that people are cooperating—that is, doing the hard work that makes a company better, more agile and more competitive. So, managers may want to let conflict happen or even intensify it.
Some actual cases in point:
At a cell phone network where several engineering teams were failing to work together on a project, the company put them together—and put the most disliked group in charge—so that they could argue about complex, overlapping deadlines and requirements for a project. This forced all the teams to think about each other’s conditions and adjust to each other. The project smoothed out, and delivery time improved.
A major vehicle maker’s products were famously hard to repair—for example, the wiring was arranged in a way that the engine had to be removed to replace the headlights. Costs skyrocketed. The remedy: The company forced the engineers to work in the service department where they had to confront angry technicians and angry customers, and understand the consequences of their engineering decisions.
Why cooperation matters
Cooperation matters because it is a necessary condition for effective teamwork and it matters more as the business environment becomes more complex. There are ever-increasing competitive pressures, regulatory requirements, and customers and other stakeholders with increasing numbers of demands. Too often, organizations respond to this complexity by getting complicated rather than by creating the conditions for cooperation. They add management layers, dedicated functions, processes and “best practices”—all in an attempt to control their people but which have the effect of deterring cooperation and making the organization clumsy and slow to respond.
What’s needed is more autonomy and cooperation—qualities that make companies more agile, flexible, responsive and competitive by harnessing the energy and intelligence of their people. Autonomy and cooperation can be complementary. Individual autonomy harnesses people’s flexibility and agility; cooperation brings synergy so that everyone’s efforts are multiplied. But cooperation, while easy to talk about, is hard to accomplish.