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Practice Prismatic Thinking

Constructive conflict from the four forces produces new forms of growth

“Four seasons fill the measure of the year; There are four seasons in the mind of man.” (John Keats)

The magic of the prism is that it appears to create color from ubiquitous streams of white light that imperceptibly dance about us at all times. Like a cheap Carney trick, all one needs is a little glass with a few oblique angles and voila – instant rainbow. Of course, the real curiosity is that ordinary light contains all imaginable variations of hue and shade, and some still unimagined given that we can’t see the entire light spectrum, but we just don’t see them interacting. Colors are as much defined by their opposites as they are their composition: Green vs. Red and Blue vs. Yellow. All New Age nomenclature aside, they vibrate at different frequencies but can be combined in all manner and shape to recreate our view of the universe.

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There are four competing forces that drive growth at all three levels. The interaction of these forces can be witnessed in the development of children, the strategic maneuvers of corporations and the trajectory of spiritual movements. This is because these forces are not psychologically derived; they are not determined by how one feels or thinks. Instead, they are defined by what outcomes they pursue or avoid. For example, imagine a stock broker on Wall Street who has been aggressively investing in high growth, high risk stocks. One day, the stock market changes directions and these stocks quickly lose their value while low risk stocks become more attractive. If that broker continues with his strategy of buying high risk stocks in the dynamics of the new market he will quickly undo all of his gains and then some. The market, an articulation of communal level forces, has little regard for his type, and the broker must respond to it or avoid it. What constitutes a high growth strategy will largely be determined by our situation and our response to it. Our situation is neither personal nor transpersonal for the dynamic forces that comprise it are universal in nature.

There are four fundamental forces that pursue competing values and pull us and all the constituents in our situations in different directions: CollaborateCreateCompete andControl. These forces drive or thwart growth in dyadic oppositions: Collaborate vs. Compete and Create vs. Control. The paradox of growth is that it is born from the tension and constructive conflict of these opposing forces and their agents.

The Collaborate force moves towards connection, harmony and togetherness. This force represent human relationships, the identification with family and clan, and the greater good of Man. The Collaborate force may be interpreted as spiritual because when it is made manifest at the Communal Level it appears as identification and commitment to a particular set of mores and beliefs. Communication and cooperation are the essential enablers of this force. Communities are united by their values. At the Individual Level we see this force at work in the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Roman Catholic nun, founder of the Missionaries of Charity and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She was compelled to create something larger than an organization, nationality or religion. Mother Teresa created a movement built on values, compassion, and service to bring dignity and mercy to the sick and poor of all faiths. The Collaborate force is typically associated the slowest forms of growth because it focuses on building the underlying organizational culture and competencies required to sustain it.

The Compete force, the opposite of Collaborate, represents a Darwinist approach that focuses on competition where the strong prevail at the expense of the weak. This force represents the drive toward goals and the end game of power, money, fame and other tangible forms of success. Contained within is a rational view of the world as divided between winners and losers. While this approach may at first appear to be hard hearted, history tells a different story where the Han Dynasty, the Romans and British Empire not only flourished but also brought prosperity to conquered lands. This view embraces meritocracy where the best and the brightest are encouraged to distinguish themselves and are compensated disproportionately from the ordinary. Laissez-faire capitalism and free market competition are hallmarks of this view and often summed up in locker room aphorisms like “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” This form of growth is the fastest of all four, but is not typically sustainable because its “sweat shop” approach gives little concern to the development of others.

The Create force pursues radical growth through wild experimentation and extreme dislocation of conventions. Often this form of growth is event-driven by an unconventional breakthrough, such as a miracle drug, or a cataclysmic event, such as an act of terrorism or a natural catastrophe. The incident is so extreme that a traditional response would be untenable. Evolutionary biology refers to this total displacement of convention as “punctuated equilibrium” meaning the revolutionary moment when the trajectory of growth is irrevocably altered. This Create force burns bridges behind it. This force is often generative and is experienced as creating as in the case of the Eco-Movement or the artistic endeavors of Pablo Picasso who came to represent cubism among other adventurous departures from realistic painting. Because of its fluid, idea-generating nature, the Create force drives unique products and services, which in turn can cause seismic shifts in the marketplace that create new categories and segments. A compelling vision of splendid possibility is usually part of this view. While this approach provides the greatest magnitude of growth, it also brings the greatest risk.

While Create represents the radical force for growth, Control brings up the rear focusing on continuity and the elimination of errors and outliers. The Control force represents incremental growth — taking something that exists and modifying it to make it better. In this view there is a right and wrong way governed by the irrefutable laws of science and civility. A meter always contains one hundred centimeters and highborn ladies never wear white after Labor Day. Interpretations are of little significance in the face of rules and standards. Data wins the day. This approach is closely associated with technology, systems and engineering employed to streamline complexity and increase efficiency and quality. From Henry Ford to Ray Kroc the industrial age is defined by this “push a button and watch it go” approach. Perfect every time. The Control force, more than any of the other three, is focused not only on growth but on the mitigation of failure. Weather manufacturing an aircraft or conducting an intricate surgery, there is a step-by-step approach for improving the process. This methodical march of progress often brings with it unwanted bureaucracy.

These four forces, the 4Cs, pull us in divergent directions not simply because we have different personality types, but rather because we seek different destinations. Like looking through a prism, different angles unveil new colors and what was hidden is revealed. On the other side of this complexity, the competing array of colors and forces, there is the simplicity of white light – the integration of all. We cannot create our own white light, our wholeness, without first seeing and understanding the composition and integration of its parts - how it grows.

  • Constructive conflict from the four forces produces new forms of growth

Jeff DeGraff

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Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

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