This is the secret behind top teams' best ideas

Debate — not lockstep agreement — is the secret recipe for a high-performing team, a new six-year study has found.

When the researchers at RHR International first started testing group dynamics in 55 teams made up of more than 700 senior executives, they thought that the senior-level teams who sought cohesion would be the most successful. They were wrong.

“It is the ability to manage conflicting tensions — as opposed to seeking cohesion — that is the most predictive of top-team performance,” they concluded in their writeup of their results for Harvard Business Review. Teams who debated their ideas regularly and encouraged a healthy sparring over ideas emerged as the highest-performing groups — with a 22% better performance of developing new products than teams that always agreed.

Just talking isn’t going to cut it. It’s critical debate that works, not non-judgmental talking where everyone gets a medal for participating. In a separate study, UC Berkeley researchers put brainstorming and constructive criticism to the test. They split up teams into a control group, a brainstorming group where participants were told to talk about ideas without judgment and criticism, and the debating group that was told to debate and criticize each others’ ideas as they came up. The debate group ended up producing 25% more ideas than the other teams in the same period of time.

The best teams debate their ideas

So for teams to succeed, you need a safe place to honestly debate your ideas, not just formally present them. “The encouragement to debate and even criticize, not only does not inhibit idea generation, it appears to enhance it even more than the traditional brainstorming instructions,” the study concluded.

That’s the kind of debate Pixar Animation Studios, a studio known for producing some of highest-grossing films of all time, does each morning. Each day at Pixar begins with junior and senior staffers analyzing and critiquing the few seconds of film they have animated the day before, in a process known as “shredding.”

“We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible,”  Lee Unkrich, director of Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” told Wired about why Pixar subjects its employees to this intense debate daily. When employees can give critical feedback to ideas and works in progress, major revisions and failures can be avoided.

How to debate instead of fight

If you want to copy the high-performing teams’ success, you first need to reframe your idea of conflict. It’s not a battleground to be won, but one where you see winning as an outcome where the best idea gets implemented — even if it’s not yours. Ultimately, you and your teammates should be debating each other for a common goal — satisfying your customer or intended audience, usually. When you focus your argument on the idea itself, you separate the person from the merit of the idea.

Pixar does this through a process known as “plussing“: to keep the morning shreddings from wearing down on employees’ psyches, animators can only criticize an idea if they also add, or “plus,” a constructive suggestion on how to make the idea better.

Good debate means embracing tension. That means talking openly and transparently about what debate should be: a clear dialogue about the conflicts, tradeoffs and concerns being addressed. Without that established framework, an argument descends into a personal fight of allegiances.