Turning Conflict into Creativity: 8 Tips from Cultural Industries

See what advice Managing Organizations in the Creative Economy author Paul Saintilan offers for creative conflict management.

November 7, 2017

Conflict exists in every organization. If well managed, it can liven up working life, spark innovation and provide meaning for workers. The creative sector thrives on creative conflict. As such, it is the perfect lens to help organizations visualize how to turn conflicts from challenges into opportunities. In this article, Managing Organizations in the Creative Economy author and creative sector specialist Paul Saintilan distills some of the ideas in his latest book to provide eight suggestions for creative conflict management.

Creative versus business tensions are well known to creative organizations. Creative organizations simultaneously pursue creative and commercial outcomes, which can sit uneasily together and can create problems. This conflict may be styled as ‘art versus commerce’ tensions or ‘creative versus suits’ tensions or ‘artistic department versus marketing department’ tensions.

For example, a magazine journalist may have a fantastic idea for an investigative story, but the sales manager opposes it because it could embarrass an important advertiser. An advertising agency creative team comes up with an imaginative idea they believe will ‘cut through’ and catch attention because of its audacity, but it is blocked by the clients and the ‘suits’ in the agency as being too high risk. An artistic director of an opera company proposes an ambitious new production that pushes the boundaries of the art form, but the general manager believes it could be financially perilous. A fashion designer creates designs they believe are distinctive, edgy and showcase their brilliance as designers, but the label head rejects them for being ‘off brand’ and too far away from known consumer preferences. In all these examples, pure creative freedom is curtailed by commercial considerations.

Paul Saintilan & David Schreiber’s new book Managing Organizations in the Creative Economy: Organizational Behaviour for the Cultural Sector, offers eight suggestions for addressing and resolving this type of interfunctional conflict when it gets serious:

  1. Strong (CEO) mediation – strong intervention by the CEO signals the importance that the whole company places on the two functions working constructively together. The CEO intervenes in order to win the trust and confidence of the managers, and to help explore new ways of working together;
  2. Superordinate goals– the CEO could reconfirm the overarching goals that are important for the whole company. Working together collaboratively is a fundamental assumption, and if a project fails, it damages both functions. Focusing on superordinate goals places attention on what unites managers rather than what divides them;
  3. Providing greater formalisation and clarity on ambiguous processes– perhaps ambiguities exist which could be better dealt with by clearly delineating lines of responsibility and clarifying processes. It could be that senior people in the creative and commercial sides of the company should be co-signatories on the business case for new projects, and the mutual commitments that are being made. This prevents a manager further down the line saying, “I always thought this wouldn’t work; it’s got nothing to do with me.” Clarifying who is responsible for what and how interactions should work in future may be a relief for all parties;
  4. Cross-functional training – the CEO could attempt to break down the ‘warring tribes’ situation through ‘job rotation’, by giving staff periods working in different areas, to give staff a greater appreciation of the role each function plays in the company;
  5. Cross-functional teams – ‘cross functional’ project teams could be formed around projects (where they don’t exist already) allowing broader participation and input into group decision making;
  6. Cross-functional rewards – objectives are often reinforced with rewards and incentives, so when managers and departments come into conflict, thought should also be given to whether different rewards and incentives contribute to this, and whether they should be adapted to encourage greater shared commitment;
  7. Removing barriers to communication– removing barriers to communication can reduce interfunctional conflict. One aspect of this is physical proximity/co-location where important and conflicting departments could be seated together in the same office area, so they ‘hang out’ together, rather than being physically separated. They can overhear one another’s conversations and get a clearer idea of what is happening on a day-to-day basis;
  8. Social interaction– the CEO may decide that more effort needs to be put into social events, parties, and recreational activities designed to get managers to better understand one another as people, rather than as company functionaries.

These suggestions can also be employed in other areas of interfunctional conflict, such as conflict between manufacturing and marketing staff or marketing and sales staff.