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Conflict is Human: Let's Use It Well

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Conflict is actual or perceived opposition of needs, values and interests, which may occur internally (within oneself) or between people or groups of people. We talk about "healthy" and "destructive" conflict, and generally we have worked very hard to eliminate it. There is a whole professional field of study called "conflict resolution - a range of methods for alleviating or eliminating sources of conflict.

Some, however, maintain that conflict "resolution" is illusory: that it is impossible to change others, and that effective conflict resolution is more about self-awareness than about 'strategies' for 'dealing with' others. For those of us coaching "self-organizing" teams: how do we navigate in this territory?

Lyssa Adkins, author of Coaching Agile Teams maintains that not only does "resolving" conflict not work - it can also be counter-productive. "On great agile teams, conflict is constant and welcomed by all as a catapult to higher performance." In her ADP2009 keynote, and in this Better Software article, she presented a model developed by Speed Leas for helping teams learn to de-escalate from destructive conflict into constructive forms of conflict.

Focus on language. What people say and how they say it is the main key for assessing the level of conflict on an agile team. The team will be in conversation frequently, so there will be many chances to focus on language. Pay attention to the words people choose.
At level 1, team members engage in conflict openly and constructively.
At level 2, the conversation changes to make room for self-protection.
At level 3, distorted language such as overgeneralizations, presumptions, magnified positions, and either/or emerges. Real issues get lost.
Level 4 becomes more ideological.
Level 5 is full-on combat.
The goal of navigating conflict is to de-escalate. Knock it down a notch or two. ...Teams - even new ones, even broken ones - can often navigate the conflict by themselves, even conflict in the level 3 range. Even if it's not perfect or the "complete" job you could do for them. ... If you observe long enough (which should feel like a really long time) and decide that your intervention is needed, there are a few response modes you can employ [these are described in the article] ...
Teams that actively navigate conflict and de-escalate regularly can learn to thrive in level 1 conflict... They dance on the edge of discomfort - just enough so that they can come up with the best ideas and build upon one another to find astonishing new possibilities. This is how they use conflict as a catapult to high performance.

Ironically, our Agile community - seemingly bursting at the seams with coaches - suffers no less than others from unhealthy conflict. In Escalation is Killing Agile – Can We Please Stop It? Rally coach and trainer Jean Tabaka made an appeal to the community at large to stop the destructive one-upmanship over Agile methods. Some mistook this for a plea to avoid conflict. Not so, she later replied in Escalation is Killing our Healthy Conflict in Agile:

Some ... [inferred] that I was anti-conflict. Far from it! In studying the inner workings of high-performing teams, I have often referred to Sam Kaner’s model for participatory decision-making. Conflict is a must. In this model, Kaner insists that, to get to high performance, we must bring forth conflict to discover the best informed decisions. Divergent ideas must be invited. Divergent voices must be heard. Divergence must be allowed to just be. That is, don’t just jump to conclusions. With enough time and patience around divergence, we can then move toward informed convergence.

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