Conflicts and Collisions in an Agile Environment

Have you ever been on a team when everything was “perfect” and conflict was avoided? Decisions were delayed and unique perspectives rarely brought forth. Perhaps you have been on a team with the other extreme – constant debates and collisions between team members were the norm.

Conflict or disagreement within a team is inevitable but how they react to it will make all the difference.

Four possible outcomes can occur when a team encounters conflict:
1) Someone wins and someone loses. One idea or point of view is chosen over the other. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.
2) Someone wins and someone gives in. Even worse than someone losing is when a great idea or perspective has been shared but the a team member has been worn out by the conflict and gives up. This often occurs between an extrovert and introvert or between someone who is well-spoken and someone not as eloquent at sharing ideas. An opportunity is lost.
3) Nothing happens. The team degrades to a point of dysfunction and immobilization.
4) Something better emerges. The team takes both sides of the conflict and finds a better and unique solution through collaboration. The team wins.

A high-performing team uses healthy conflict as way to drive innovation and will learn how to turn differing opinions and ideas into something meaningful. They have learned how to listen and respect each other and know that healthy conflict can be leveraged to drive creativity.

If you are trying to find the sweet-spot for your Agile team to be healthy in their approach to conflict, here are a couple of tips to try:

Build triads. Unless it’s a personal issue between two people, solving problems with groups of three always seem to have the best results. Based on Dave Logan’s book Tribal Leadership, “A third person will always stabilize and grow the relationship between the other two.” To provide balance and stabilization, as an example, product discovery teams can be created using triads.

Leverage the Scrum Master role. The Scrum Master is able to maintain a stance of neutrality and can often be the “third person” in a triad. When a potential conflict is identified, a well-experienced Scrum Master should be in a position to make sure all voices are heard and to facilitate the team to the desired state of collaboration.

Be aware of traditional points of conflict. If your organization has traditional silos of contention, such as between architects and developers or between business and technology, knowing this ahead of time will allow you to create specific coaching or mentoring for this situation.

Establish ground rules. Especially with new teams, work with them to create a set of ground rules for handling disagreements. Setup role-playing and “what-if” scenarios for your team and practice the new ground rules before you need them.

Remember the vision. Our customers and users really don’t care how we created a product for them or what happens behind the scenes. Focusing on the needs of our customers or users may shift the focus from our own internal issues or the desire to “win”.


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