Want To Get Better? Allow Yourself To Be Challenged

Creative abrasion is the practice of using disagreeing or different thinking in order to dynamically solve creative problems.

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Great minds think alike, though fools seldom differ.

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Everyone knows the first, common part of this phrase- but it’s the latter half of the complete phrase that makes us question the first part. How foolish it would be to think that all great minds think alike? The process by which to arrive to a creatively driven outcome is many times misunderstood. The creative industries and agencies have romanticized that the team that gets along perfectly, that approaches problems similarly, that can finish each other’s sentences, is a leading team. Organizations’ cultural standards have focused on building cohesive, agreeable teams that all just get along. These expectations and standards focus on making the process easy.

But nothing truly great was ever achieved by taking the easy way. So, how do we challenge the easy way, to strive for something better?

Automotive designer Jerry Hirshberg, credited with design of the iconic Pontiac Firebird in the 1960’s amongst many others, coined the phrase “creative abrasion.” Creative abrasion is the practice of using disagreeing or different thinking in order to dynamically solve creative problems. It is when each person involved understands the landscape, constraints or opportunity differently- leading them to a different solution.

This approach, incorporating creative abrasion is the challenging way. It leads to disputes and arguments- it can mean taking one step backwards, for every two steps forward. But it’s creative abrasion that has produced some of the most stunning work and breakthrough innovation of the past decades. It’s by each team member seeing things differently, that the end product becomes more dynamic, more error-proof, and more relevant.

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It’s by disagreeing and discussing that ideas are tested, defended, and validated. It’s by challenging each other that every person is held to a higher standard for delivery, for their own thinking- to bring forth ideas that will withstand a bit of tension and turmoil, and be able to blossom into something even better.

But when is too much tension, well, too much?

Many managers avoid any conflict or tension because they are concerned that it will go too far. They care about their employees and staff, and fear that conflict amongst them will result in anguish, which can also reduce productivity. However, if there is no tension, then the quality of the solutions and ideas suffers, the status quo is never challenged, and clear and rapid improvement never available. So, succumbing to the fear of things “going too far,” and thereby not allowing for any tension is not effective leadership.

Creative abrasion is ideal if and when it is used in effort to build. Build ideas. Build solutions. Likewise for the people engaged- if they are building and collaborating, then the tension is serving its purpose. Creative abrasion should be challenging in a way that is productive, rather than destructive. In the heat of conflict, it’s not unlikely for one person to tear down an idea- to disprove its validity or future use. This is what conflict is. While many managers will focus on this tear down, they are being short-sighted. Because, it’s what happens next that is actually more significant. If you’re going to tear it down, if you are going to create that abrasion, you must be ready to build it back up, better than before.

So, what does this mean for a city like Dubai, in which over three quarters of the population are from elsewhere?

Here in Dubai, diversity is rich, each person with bespoke personal experiences, careers and cultural characteristics. Each person, hailing from different corners or the world, has a different way of thinking, different ideas and a different approach to get to a solution. And with so many differences, it means that the opportunity for creative abrasion, or a clash of ideas is rife. One of Hirschberg’s named types of creative abrasion is in bringing together divergent pairs- people that see the world differently. Here, in Dubai, we are primed for this. The opportunity is at hand, for Dubai’s creative community to excel by harnessing our divergent, expat ways to foster creative abrasion, and to allow for tension amongst our differences. So long as we, as Dubai has always done- continue to build.

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Hanna VanKuiken

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Hanna VanKuiken is the Business Director for Rapp MENA, a global advertising agency and creative consultancy. She has over ten years of experience leading teams in branding and design agencies as well as traditional advertising agencies. In the span of her career, she has led work with Proctor and Gamble, Mondelez International, FedEx, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, CA Technologies and MetLife. She is passionate about cross-functional collaboration and breaking down silos in order to achieve business goals and deliver to consumers and buyers in new and innovative ways. Originally from the US, Hanna is currently based in Dubai.