Why Conflicting Goals Will Make You More Creative [CASE STUDY]

What is creativity? It is the use of imagination and original ideas to create something. Robert E. Franken defines creativity as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. According to Linda Naiman, it is the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. It involves two process: thinking, and executing, she explains. “If you have ideas but don’t act on them, you are imaginative but not creative.”

If you paint or sing, or draw interesting conclusions from boring data sheets, or even use your commuting time effectively, you are creative.

For centuries, creativity was reserved for an elite few. It was for people who belonged to creative fields: artists, musicians, designers, publishers etc. It was restricted. Or so we thought. Creativity and innovation have always been an integral part of successful organizations and professionals.

Stretch Goals

How can we exercise creativity? One way is to introduce stretch goals, for pursuing radical growth instead of incremental improvement.

Stretch goals are used in the corporate world. But they often fail because managers and executive don’t look behind five to ten percent improvement.

You see, people can achieve five to ten percent growth by working harder and longer. It doesn’t change things. But a twenty five percent improvement shakes things up. The conventional sweating harder does not help. In fact, a twenty five percent growth target appears ridiculous in the beginning, and is met with massive opposition. Then, gradually, people put their heads together and achieve seemingly impossible goals. This leads to innovation in business.

Such a high bar has its pros and cons. The pros include boosting creativity and innovation in employees, giving them a larger sense of purpose, and the delight they experience because of autonomy and achievement. Not to mention the humongous improvement in operational processes. The cons are that another area of business might get compromised. And that’s true. This danger is real. To counter this compromise, a technique must be implemented: intentional goal conflict.

What is Goal Conflict?

Goals drive our action and behavior. It is the object of our ambition or effort; an aim or a desired result (Oxford Dictionary 2014). When we set a goal, we try using all means available to achieve it. How soon we achieve it (or whether we do) depends on how much the goal motivates us.

Goal conflict occurs when a goal we wish to achieve interferes with another equally important goal. For instance, you want to take up a course to progress in your career, but it’s timing coincides with your work schedule. Or, a student might want to spend more time with friends but also improve her grades. This is goal conflict.

Goal conflict is frustrating. It makes us choose between one task or another, both of which seem important. But intentional goal conflict can be a powerful technique to harness creativity and innovation.

How Toyota Used Goal Conflict to Beat BMW and Mercedes

(As seen on Harvard Business Review)

Ichiro Suzuki was Toyota’s chief engineer for the secret project – the first Lexus. He challenged the team to produce a luxury performance sedan that would beat the BMW 735i and Mercedes 420SEL across the board. The Lexus had to be better in comfort, styling, performance, handling, cabin noise, aerodynamics, weight, fuel efficiency, and cost. The reaction from 1,400 engineers and 3,700 designers was unanimous: Impossible!

Suzuki’s goals included a top speed of 155 miles per hour (735i and 420SEL topped out at under 140), 22.5 miles per gallon (735i and 420SEL got less than 20), a cabin noise level of 58 decibels at 60 mph (735i and 420SEL were over 60), and an aerodynamic drag of 0.29 or less (735i and 420SEL were over 0.32), all in a vehicle weighing 80 pounds less than the 3,880-pound 735i.

The goals were not just outrageous, they conflicted. For example, greater speed and acceleration conflicts directly with fuel efficiency, noise, and weight, because higher speed and acceleration require a more powerful engine. A more powerful engine is a bigger and heavier engine, and so it makes more noise and consumes more fuel.

But Ichiro Suzuki’s war cry was naukatsu: “never compromise.”

1990 Lexus LS 400

source: Flickr

Engineers and designers went back to the drawing board together. One by one, the innovations came. Many mechanical components were completely redesigned. The propeller shaft, for instance, originally in two parts connected by an angled knuckle, was replaced by a perfectly straight one. This enabled a nearly silent cabin.

Contradictions began to be reframed as complementary. For example, aesthetics and aerodynamics could complement each other, by fitting window glass and door handles into the metal itself, producing a cleaner look and better airflow.

When the Lexus LS400 debuted in 1989, it trumped the BMW 735i and Mercedes 420SEL in every category rated by Car and Driver Magazine. And for $30,000 less.

This example illustrates why “impossible” and “out of your mind” can signal impending breakthrough. Innovation management is all about thriving on what seems impossible. Tension between conflicting goals is a potent exercise to fuel creative thinking skills and foster innovation.

Goal conflict is not useful only for organizations. It leads to enhanced creativity in individuals too. We love to start something afresh on a blank canvas, right? But even the blank canvas or whiteboard has boundaries. These boundaries keep our creativity relevant. They also ensure that we don’t compromise another aspect of our lives in the pursuit of improving one. To see things from a different perspective, impose restrictions on yourself. Look for creative ways to identify solutions. What seems impossible now, will become easy later.

What do you do to enhance your creativity? Do share your tips with us. We would love to hear them.


  1. Tushar Gangoly April 29, 2016

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