Conflict is inevitable, and I find myself talking about it quite a bit right now. Part of the agile assessment I use for teams asks about how conflict is handled, and I’ve noticed people get uncomfortable talking about it. The initial answers I hear are “we don’t have conflict” or “we try to focus on the work.” The truth is, if we’re all trying really hard to make a great product… well, conflict is inevitable.
Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd talked about conflict and systems thinking in their Agile 2012 presentation, and they suggested viewing conflict as a positive urge for change rather than a negative. That perspective has given me a whole new view on conflict. A phrase they used is “Everyone is right, but only partially.” If we can go beyond the conflict to understand the underlying mindset differences and reveal them to the people involved, then we can work through them. With this viewpoint, it feels much easier to identify conflict now and try to navigate it. This video has some good tips on how to handle difficult conversations, and I like the parallels to dancing:
One challenge is recognizing how serious a conflict is. Lea’s model is helpful for this. Right now I have a situation where someone describes a current conflict and tries to paint it as a simple disagreement, but due to a history of unresolved conflicts or other factors, things have clearly escalated to where lines are being drawn across the team. It’s near the point where someone must lose. No constructive outcome can be had. Thinking this is level 1 conflict could be dangerous.