Learning to be with Conflict

Photo by John Morgan

Photo by John Morgan

I've joked recently that some people call me a "process coach" because I am not a technical coach, but given that the Agile Manifesto values individuals and interactions over processes and tools, it might be more accurate to call me an "individuals and interactions coach."  And since I focus on individuals and interactions, I have quite a bit of experience with conflict--from simple disagreements about tasks all the way to someone might be destroyed in the end.  It isn't always easy stepping into a team and witnessing conflict when it has been festering.

So why put myself there?  Because I can help the team navigate the conflict when they are struggling to do so on their own.  By letting them know that conflict is normal, I can make it safe to talk openly about what's going on for them.  Sometimes I walk into a meeting knowing about one conflict within the team only to discover that there are multiple conflicts present!  Being able to facilitate so team members are willing to say their truths and helping them to hear one another can be exciting--you can feel the energy in the room shift as the conflicts are revealed.  The discussion unfolds, and the energy becomes more positive.  That's a wonderful feeling.

To better understand conflict and learn to be with conflict, I suggest watching this video:

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Conflict in Agile Teams

Photo by bayasaa

Photo by bayasaa

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.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Conflict in Virtual and Distributed Teams

Photo by Azri

Photo by Azri

My coworker Jane shared an interesting article on how to manage conflict in virtual teams that got me thinking about some of the challenges I've seen with virtual and distributed teams.  The article points out that successful virtual teams tend to have online discussion boards in an shared virtual workspace, which is probably quite true, but it implies that such tools are the key to avoid or manage conflict. 

Communication is the answer to avoiding or managing conflict, and an online discussion board is just one way for team members to communicate.  It's been said that software development is a cooperative game, so when team members are not collocated, cooperation is more difficult.  I encourage teams to use the richest synchronous communication tools possible because it helps to ensure shared understanding. It's quite easy to tell Team Member A to pick up the phone and call Team Member B who is hundreds of miles away instead of sending an email, but it won't work if Team Member A cannot make long distance calls from his desk and he does not have cell phone reception because he sits in the basement of the building.  

If you have a virtual or distributed team, make sure its setup for success by having the right communication tools available.  Conflict will happen in any team, and the ability to communicate openly person to person is the only way to resolve it.  Effective communication requires relationships, and relationships are built on regular communication.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.