Teamwork and Conflict in Agile

Here’s the scene: you and your team (however you relate to them) are stuck at a pivotal point with a decision to make. To some, the next choice feels both important and obvious. To everyone else in the room whom may feel differently, it can feel like they’re standing on an island, surrounded by a stand-off. And to complicate it further, you’re somewhere in between.

That’s the story so far. So what happens now?

Whatever the actual conflict of opinion is, how you and your team respond next relies heavily on the bond and trust you’ve built between each of you. And most importantly, how you and your team approach this particular crux will be heavily influenced by your collective ability to feel open, vulnerable, and valuable amongst one another, even in conflict. Teams who reach this level of maturity—maturity that allows for healthy conflict—produce amazing products, relationships, and outcomes. The good news? Your Agile team has reached that level, and here’s why:

Relationships are at the Heart of Agile

When your organization chose to build Agile teams they hired smart, motivated people who were good at their chosen craft. The organization further trusted someone to assemble at least one team that could handle developing the product the mission-at-hand and the market called for, and that person (or those persons) hired accordingly. Now all your organization needed was to facilitate their collaboration. The skills to execute were and have been there, and you trust the people you’ve hired to get the job done. The rest was in how they worked together, how they related to one another.

But you knew this. You read the 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto. Especially this one: “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.” And you truly get the concept behind “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

You knew conflict happens. You also knew “face-to-face” conflict came with those “face-to-face” interactions. That was part of the deal, and your Agile Coach has been facilitating healthy conflict resolution and retrospection since day 1. You knew all of this because you understood the drivers behind every great team’s performance was in how the organization supported their ability to work together in collaboration.

This May Not Be Your Story

If you’ve gotten this far into the story I laid out about your team and it doesn’t read like the Agile team you know and work with, you certainly aren’t alone. I’ve worked with many teams who didn’t meet that threshold, teams whose organizations have chosen Agile and skipped straight to Sprints, Velocity Points, and Burndown charts. Even more, I’ve worked with teams who felt like they were executing Scrum because they held a daily stand-up. Nevermind Focus, Courage, Openness, Commitment, and Respect, these organizations had deadlines to meet and targets to hit; according to those organizations there wasn’t time to retrospect. And even while I will advocate bad practice (see immediately above) trumps theory, the nature of what will truly unlock your organization’s potential lies as much in your people and how they work together as it does in the process and execution. How they come together solve complex problems determines the outcomes that affect your and your business.

Facilitating Healthy Conflict Can Lead to Healthy Outcomes

Conflict happens, especially in high performance teams, and from my experience, this is where healthy teams shine. Teams that know and trust one another navigate conflict almost seamlessly. Teams that know and trust one another feel better about each other as well. They can, at times, navigate conflict so effectively that even I, who prides myself on my ability to recognize friction, often don’t notice immediately. Less healthy teams, however, become more obviously mired in their disagreement. If they do reach a resolution, it often comes with some damage to how they relate to one another, another pock mark in their past that can hinder their future potential. It is here where I’ve seen the biggest contributions from great Agile managers, Scrum Masters, and coaches: in their ability to support teams in their exploration and growth of themselves and one another. Through the mitigation of healthy conflict.

It’s worth noting that not all conflict is created equally nor does every team resolve conflict effectively, even with a great facilitator. If you aren’t already, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann’s work around conflict modes and how they’re measured. And no discussion around team dynamics is complete without referencing Tuckman’s stages of group development. However you choose to look at this part of the Agile equation, teamwork and how they respond to conflict is at the foundation of every great team.

Back to Your Team Today

How does your team today currently respond to divergent opinions? With collaboration? By experimenting together with hypotheses? Through inspection and adaptation? However your team solves for conflict today, the more important question is, how does their approach to conflict affect them and how they relate to one another? And which tools can you give them to help them solve their conflicts in ways they feel good about?


Wes Kay is a Certified Scrum Master, Agile Coach, and product enthusiast currently located and practicing in Austin, TX.