Want innovation? You need healthy conflict

Richard W. DeVaul
7 min readMay 3, 2021
The Boxers, 1818, by Théodore Gericault, Metropolitan Museum of Art

High team performance is often described in terms of harmony — everyone pulling together. But in the workplace, this kind of harmony isn’t always healthy, and can be a sign of deeper problems. On innovation teams, high performance is defined not by harmony, but by its opposite: conflict; more specifically, high-performance in creative teams is defined by positive, healthy conflict.

By understanding how to foster and derive value from positive conflict, team leaders and members can create the foundation needed to solve hard problems, define their values, and create a sense of collective identity.

a true story of positive conflict, delayed

“We can’t let this fly. We won’t learn anything and it isn’t safe.”

The words hung in the air in the Google [X] conference room. It was late on a Thursday afternoon, sometime in fall of 2012. The technical leads of Project Loon, at that time less than a dozen people, had gathered to review upcoming flight tests.

In 2012 I was the scientific and technical leader of Project Loon, a secret R&D effort with aspirations to provide connectivity to billions of unconnected people by means of high-altitude balloons and LTE. Nearly a decade later, Loon would be wound down by Alphabet, but not after providing service to millions of people in the Caribbean, South America, and central Africa.

Cliff, our head of embedded systems was speaking; even sitting down, his physical presence and intensity filled the room. He continued:

“The flight firmware is nothing but hacks on top of hacks. It was never meant to do what we are doing now. We need to stop flying, and focus on finishing Major Tom.”

Major Tom was the next-generation firmware, which had been in progress for months but had been delayed by the constant drumbeat of test flights, each requiring yet another modification of the original flight firmware. Cliff and the others were fed up, and I understood their concerns.

I also understood the concerns of Mike, the operations lead of the project. Mike was pushing an aggressive flight schedule to get us ready for the upcoming public launch in New Zealand; the only way we could be ready would be to have…

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Richard W. DeVaul

Founder, mad scientist, moonshot launcher. Writes on innovation, entrepreneurship, and social/queer issues. ex-CTO of Google X. @rdevaul on twitter