The Real World: Biodesign

Teamwork, Conflict, and the Expectations of a Future Fellow

“This is the true story… of eight strangers… picked to live and work at the Biodesign office at Clark E100… and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real.”

-Adapted from MTV’s The Real World Opening Lines

Ok, so our lives won’t be taped (that we know of), and the new fellows are not really strangers at this point. In fact, I’ve already met the other seven 2010-2011 Biodesign Fellows, and I am very excited to work with them next year. They are all incredibly intelligent, enthusiastic, good-humored, and professional. In other words, you would not expect the kind of antics from this group that you might see on The Real World.

However, after speaking with a handful of Biodesign alumni about what to expect next year, I am a bit apprehensive, as I’ve noticed a common thread among their pearls of wisdom—a thread which may put us closer to our reality show counterparts than we would like. I’ve paraphrased some of the advice below:

  • “Managing interpersonal dynamics will probably be most challenging.”
  • “With a flat structure, no single person on the team has decision-making authority, which can trigger major, epic battles.”
  • “Get ready for the sparks to fly—it’s inevitable.”
  • “Julian (the ‘shrink’) is going to be invaluable to your team’s survival—meet with him early on.”
  • “Have the DTR talk early on – make sure everyone’s motives are out in the open so there are no surprises later in the year.”
  • “You’ll love your team; (at least) that’s what you’ll tell the whole world. Sometimes, it will be true.”

We knew when we signed up that the 11-month program would be an intensive, fully immersive, and even grueling experience—a way for us to become intimate with the Biodesign process so we can achieve our goals of becoming effective medical technology innovators.  We are preparing ourselves, both mentally (for the challenging material we will tackle) and physically (for the long hours we will endure).

But are we preparing enough for the softer side—the team issues that the alumni have experienced and predict for us? Is interpersonal conflict among the Biodesign Fellows really inevitable? How can we minimize it? Should we even try? Could friction be a good thing for the innovation process? Is it possible to encourage the creative kind of conflict while avoiding the destructive kind? Finally, how can we leverage the experience of difficult negotiations that occur during the Fellowship to help us in our future careers as innovators?

Although I’m somewhat of an interloper in this forum (I still have 11+ months to go before I can legitimately call myself a Biodesign alumnus)—I want to take this opportunity to solicit thoughts and advice from the wider Biodesign community, especially the alumni, on how to manage our future inevitable conflict.

Two grad courses I took at Stanford last year—Negotiation and Organizational Behavior—have changed the way I think about interpersonal conflict and team dynamics, and how these elements play an essential role in the innovation process.  The concepts are familiar to anyone who has worked on teams.  I have summarized a few of the key points below, as it may provide a useful nidus for discussion:

  • Don’t fight over the pie, grow the pie together. During conflict-resolution, a key tenet of “principled negotiation” (developed at Harvard) is that most conflicts are not zero-sum games—there is usually a creative solution that can meet the majority of both parties’ interests. The challenge is whether or not enough time is spent identifying and understanding everyone’s interests (similar to the importance of a thorough need identification process).  Just like the Biodesign process is need-based, make the conflict resolution process interest-based.
  • Don’t get personal. In principled negotiation, it is critical to separate the relationship from the substantive issues. The ultimate goal of negotiation is to resolve conflict while improving the relationship. As Stan Christensen teaches in Negotiation, it’s ok to “disagree without being disagreeable.” In the heat of an argument, it’s easy for people to leak relationship or personal issues into the debate (such as, “C’mon, just do it. Aren’t we friends?” or “You are always late, so you don’t really get a say”), which distracts from the real purpose of the discussion. It’s important to address any personal issues, but it’s important to address them separately.
  • Hackman’s effectiveness criteria. Keeping in mind Hackman’s effectiveness criteria for groups (below) may help the teams to ensure all activities help to improve the group’s relationship and effectiveness over time.  Criteria #2 and #3 are especially relevant to the questions at hand.
    • #1. Does the team’s output meet the standards of those who use (and review) it? (Duh!)
    • #2. Does the team experience contribute to the personal well-being and development of the members? (How are we each improving?)
    • #3. Does the team experience enhance the capability of the members to work and learn together in the future? (How is the team becoming more effective?)
  • Conflict as a source of innovation. Some research has shown that fighting over ideas can be good for innovation.  William Wrigley, Jr. said “When two people in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.”  Passionate disagreement, and resolution of it, might be the greatest source of innovation, as teams work together for even better solutions. At the same time, to move forward effectively, Bob Sutton’s advice from Organizational Behavior is not only to fight like hell for what you believe, but also to listen like hell. Karl Weick put it, “Fight as if you are right, listen as if you are wrong.” Brian Fahey framed this kind of constructive conflict in an earlier blog post as a balance between optimism and pessimism, which he suggests is key to finding the best solution.
  • Moving past disagreement. Another challenging part of resolving conflict is separating the fighting phase from the commitment/action phase.  Once a decision has been made by the team, further fighting may only hamper the implementation phase, when team unity is most critical. Per the Intel motto: “Disagree, and then commit.”

As the eight of us prepare for the experience of a lifetime, we will have to negotiate with each other and with ourselves. In addition to the core goal of becoming experts in medical technology innovation, navigating the issues of team dynamics and becoming better team players will be a major part of the experience. Using the conflict-resolution skills that we develop during the coming year, we hope that the decisions we make as a team will be more effective than the decisions we could make as individuals.

We would love to hear your team and conflict-resolution experiences during the Fellowship or in your professional careers, as well as any ideas on best practices for resolving team conflicts and making effective team decisions.


3 responses to The Real World: Biodesign

  1. BIO-DESIGN is…? | biodesign for the real world

    […] Engineering, also an art and science book sold by MoMA on bio-inspired design. There is even a “REAL WORLD” (Stanford) biodesign, which turns out to be an article on conflict […]

  2. Jaci

    Congrats on the fellowship, R.V., and great post. “Difficult Conversations” is, hands-down, my favorite book on negotiations. Best of luck!


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