The Exciting Interplay between Conflict and Innovation

An interview with Dr. Wolfram Dreier, Steinbeis Entrepreneur at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Conflict Resolution

Wolfram Dreier has been working within the Steinbeis Network for almost 30 years, and for two decades he has overseen the Steinbeis Transfer Center in Wangen, with a continual focus on mediation and conflict resolution. It is therefore not surprising that these topics were the emphasis of a 2023 doctoral thesis published by Dreier through Steinbeis-Edition. The title of his paper: Innovationsförderndes Konfliktmanagement [Innovation-Promoting Conflict Management]. TRANSFER magazine spoke to the author about his motivations, his understanding of conflict, and the central thrusts of his doctorate.

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Hello Dr. Dreier. How did you come to specialize in mediation and conflict management?

I didn’t foresee working as a mediator, not at first, but looking back I can see that there were indications which direction I was headed in. When I was on community service at a hospital for children with psychosomatic disorders, I was inspired by the work carried out by the psychologist there. I was a specialist in industrial engineering and in my first job I found myself confronted by the challenges of disagreement between senior directors. The numerous discussions I had with business leaders, and the insights I gained into innovative companies when Steinbeis appointed me as managing director of economic development agencies in Göppingen and Ravensburg, played a significant role in motivating me, although my decision to train as a mediator was mainly fueled by my experience as a board member of a medium-sized company. It was there I realized that ultimately, focusing too strongly on achieving harmony isn’t actually conducive. I wanted more clarity when it comes to dealing with conflict, so I trained as a business mediator at the Steinbeis Academy for Mediation, Social Aspects and Law at Steinbeis University, and then I deepened my knowledge through a part-time master’s degree at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder. In 2017, I also published my master’s thesis as a book through Steinbeis-Edition under the title Über den Konflikt zur Innovation [Through Conflict to Innovation].

You describe yourself as a “mediator by conviction.” What exactly does that mean?

I’m convinced that applying elements of mediation and adopting a mediatorial attitude creates opportunities. Principles such as appreciative communication, conscious listening, being open to outcomes, and being genuinely interested in others have proven extremely important elements of everyday work. As a mediator, I accompany people on a path to conflict resolution and strive not only to resolve difficulties in the here and now, but also to alleviate fear surrounding conflict.

Do you think there’s a connection between conflict management, mediation skills, and the innovative capabilities of companies?

Innovation is often fueled by processes of friction. People have a tendency to cling on to the familiar, whereas innovation entails change, so it can fuel conflict. The question’s not whether conflicts are a necessity for innovation to happen, but how companies deal with them. This is where there’s valuable orientation to be gained from the principles of mediation.

Your dissertation looks at a conceptual framework based on a model called “innovation-promoting conflict management.” Could you tell our readers more about this model?

One thing I should point out is that some parts of my dissertation are based on my master’s thesis. I delved deeper into the question of which overall parameters and which behaviors of leadership allow innovation to arise from conflict. To do this, I conducted a study based on scientifically grounded principles to look at innovative small and medium-sized enterprises, and I presented the insights I gained from this in my book. “Innovation-promoting conflict management” is a component model stemming from these findings. At the heart of this lies the aforementioned awareness that conflicts are a starting point for innovation within companies. If you’re not aware of this, contentious issues get swept under the carpet, you don’t have an honest or open culture of failure, and there’s a tendency to see innovation as a threat rather than an opportunity.

This tendency to actively allow conflict to happen arises from situations that pull people in different directions, not just employees themselves but also managers. So it’s important that these areas of tension are rooted in a corporate culture that’s embraced and actively lived out accordingly. Aspects such as trust, assuming responsibility, being prepared to help others, and working with one another in partnerships of equals play an important role in this. Ultimately, these components have to come hand in hand with internal communication, on all levels. The model captures these relationships and the mutual interdependencies between different components.

Scientific models are helpful, but what do people involved in actual business practice have to say about this?

The statements I describe and the derived component model are underpinned by actual examples from interviews. Examining this was a central element of my research. The examples I provide range from leaving doors open, as a symbol of flat hierarchies, to using humor to resolve conflict. Actual business practice is central to my work.


The dissertation on “Innovationsförderndes Konfliktmanagement” [innovation-promoting conflict management] is available in the Steinbeis-Edition store at

Dr. Wolfram Dreier (interviewee)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Transfer Center: Conflict Resolution (Wangen)