Conflicts as a tool of Successful Delivery

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.
Margaret Heffernan

In IT we speak a lot. Agile encourages communication effectiveness and brings it to the next level: discussions, knowledge exchange, clarifications. Today we expect people to speak with each other to be sure, as we name it, that they are “aligned”.

To be aligned for managers usually means that people accept each other’s approaches and/or points of view. This is required cause products we are developing today are much more complex, contain complicated dependencies. Today we push people to be aware what’s going on around them and be more proactive in communications. We need this as we need to deliver faster, deliver more competitive applications.

To make an actual product increment we need to find the balance of four components:

Components of Delivery Process
  • Technology — the stack of tools & approaches we need to use to be able to reach the delivery goal
  • People — the set of teams & skills you should have on board to make selected technologies work
  • Time — selected technologies & people need time to make delivery
  • Money — you need money to support your time frame

Any of these components depended on each other. But Human is the most important level — human selects technologies, allocates money and commits to time frame.

As communication is a natural part of human interaction we have to speak with each other to make delivery process efficient. To make progress we need to agree with each other that can be a hard task to complete as we all are different.

To make delivery process more efficient and productive we need to improve communication productivity.

Good team managers are always trying to decrease loads of communication and increase the quality of it. The quality of communication is influenced by domain knowledge, team involvement, your leadership experience, and conflicts.

Conflict as a part of Communication

As result of communication we have opposition of thinking between groups, individuals or individuals and groups. This is natural as we all have own understanding of the right and the wrong. The likelihood of a conflict is higher when there are:

Bipolar minds in the group — have two-or-more approaches for solving same problem.

Fight for the leadership. The wanna-be Team Lead was fighting with the present Team Lead? Team do not accept you as a Leader? You are fresh in company and want to become non-formal leader?

The difference in personalities. Your lead developer do not accept people without it-knowledge in the team?

All of these situations may end up as a conflict.

If you keep attention on your team’s behaviour you can find that conflicts in most of cases happen between individuals/groups only if they know each other for some times. Why does this happen? Basically due to the nature of conflict: the fact that every opposite in conflict would like to win at the end. To be able to win you need to know what weak points and strengths of your opponent(s) are.

About 67% of employees avoid conflicts. We are more aligned with avoidance tactic due to the next factors:

Social factor. Inside, we are all afraid of conflicts. Since childhood, we are taught that starting conflict is bad. Which may be true of course if we talk about children sharing their toys in a sandbox. However, in the adult world conflicts are inevitable, and those who are afraid of conflicts try to escape and simply agree with everything.

Lack of trust. If there is no trust in the team, they will always avoid conflicts. In his “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” Patrick Lencioni explains the fear of conflict as seeking artificial harmony over the constructive passionate debate.

We are not sure if we can be heard. Those who are not used to be listened to, try to avoid expressing their opinion. Very often we are afraid to make the situation even worse by expressing our opinion.

The result of avoidance is low level of commitment, low level of engagement in delivery process and general demotivation. Also this gives a credit to person who has started the conflict as he won it without any interaction.

Working with Conflicts in Tuckman’s stages of group development

Lets see how conflicts are represented in each of Tuckman’s stage and what we need to do as managers.

Forming

“Welcome to new team. Today is the first day you see these faces” — this is a good introduction of forming. Forming is something new. Forming is the time when you start your new project.

On Forming stage you are not a team, you are just a group of people gathered together to make something you do not completely understand. This is the time when people get knowledge about each other.

Usually Forming is “no-conflicts” period. People in year team looking around and trying to understand who the people around are. Usually it’s very hard to get any agreement and there is not Trust in group.

Take proactive position. Remember, that to be in Norming/Performing you have to move forward.

Watch how people behave in different situations, push people to make decisions and be proactive in making these decisions. And take notes about every thing you or your team is doing — this will give you the possibility to analyze.

Storming

Storming is the hottest period of your team’s growing-up. This is the place where the Status Quo is going to be built.

Humans are the gregarious animals. We have a hierarchy in society (some nations more, some less) that bring “fight for the leadership” condition. Storming is the time when you see it in action. Most of people in Storming are trying to raise their authority and influence in decisions making.

Be very careful but don’t stand outside. Your position is neutral. You are a facilitator and your goal is to achieve results by showing others the way out from conflict. This way out is the providing facts.

Facts are the key. Conflicts are emotions but not facts. When you switch to dispute you see results.

Ensure that everyone is heard — the team member who sits in a silence may have the best understanding of the end result and possess facts. Speak with people on meeting, one-to-ones. Look for compromises.

The most important in human interaction is to avoid a post-conflict mood. Ensure that team player who accepts another position makes it cause he agrees on it but not cause he is pushed to do it.

Set up rules and roles, make people understand them and follow. When you have rules on place you can operate with them in conflict situations bringing people to agreements you made before. Post mortem technique will help you to make clarity of rules you are trying to build.

Norming

This is the time of cooling-off and relationship stabilization. The time when you can say “finally we see the team”.

Now you have people who understand their places in big puzzle of work life. Now your team starts to get benefit from conflicting by understanding the position of opponent(s).

Starting from Norming you will have a desire to find the solution. This is a good indication of stage switch. Facilitate your team with it, work on team building up. This is a great time to be together and set the proper, achievable, SMART goals.

Performing

Not a lot of Teams will be here. Basically due to the fact that this stage is more about emotional condition. This is then you make your goal comes true independently of the obstacles. You see the goal and you reach it, no matter what happens.

You will not have any time to fight. You will have time to act. This is why team’s decisions will be fast, trusted and supported.

You will find great leaders around you. You will have a feeling it’s time to grow the leaders as it is a part of your team’s success.

Your Do and Don’ts

Now you have a common understanding of conflicts in Tuckman’s model. Let’s have a short summary of your Dos and Don’ts.

Dont’s

  • Avoid conflicts. They will chase you anyway
  • Leave conflicts unresolved
  • Think that you are the only one right
  • Don’t escalate the conflict by attacking and blaming
  • Try to calm down the other person

Do’s

  • Live discussions. Start unpleasant conversations and don’t be lazy to explain
  • Understand what is the result expected in discussion and define the arguments missed
  • Ask for opinion, especially from non-formal leaders, as it may be the most relevant
  • Keep neutrality. Ask for facts, and keep track of conversation
  • Understand when the conflict gives no results, and postpone to get back with facts
  • Operate with arguments and facts, but not emotions
  • Respect and emotional intelligence

Post Effect of Conflicts

First of all, with every solved conflict your team will learn how to solve future conflicts using cooperation, not fighting. As soon as you show the team that you are good in conflict management, they will recognize you as a Leader, start listening to you and will appreciate your response to their opinions. The quality of solutions will also become higher, as you will have more personal opinions, ideas and thus more options to choose from. Naturally, the team atmosphere will get better and finally the team performance will also get better. Isn’t is the main goal for you as a manager?

*Article was written down based on presentation from Lviv PM Weekend 2016