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5 Tools for Team Conflict Resolution

Team ConflictIs infighting damaging your team morale and retention? Do you know what types of conflict are healthy and which are not? When you do intervene, do you have a strategy, or just ”wing it” and hope for the best?

People have different ideas; this diversity helps us overcome any individual shortcomings. It also means conflict is inevitable on projects. Whenever we have people contribute different opinions about a solution, there will be some level of conflict. Minor disagreement in the pursuit of a better solution is positive and welcome. Persistent bickering and personal attacks are destructive and need to be addressed. So how do we do that?

First, let's acknowledge conflict resolution approaches should be tailored to each unique situation. There is no single simple solution; otherwise, people would walk through the process themselves. Instead, we need to find our way based on the circumstances occurring.

So while there is no formula, it is helpful to have some strategies, some models to guide our thought process. This article outlines some basic models for conflict resolution to be aware of—and maybe incorporate if they help in your situation.

The first of the conflict models we will review helps us understand and characterize various levels of conflict. Intuitively, we know healthy debate helps us develop stronger solutions and is generally a good thing. At the other end of the scale, we know personal attacks and bullying cannot be tolerated and must be dealt with. Yet there is a whole spectrum between these extremes, each with triggers that can escalate the conflict and strategies to help de-escalate it, too.

1. Understand the Levels of Conflict

The “Five Levels of Conflict” model developed by Speed Leas shows the continuum:

5 Levels of Conflict

The model starts with level one “Problem to Solve” and goes all the way up to level five “World War.” One way to determine the level of conflict is to focus on the language the team is using and compare it to Leas's description of the five levels:

  • Level 1 (Problem to Solve) - The language is friendly and constructive. People use factual statements to justify their viewpoints. For example, team members may make statements such as, "Oh, I see what you are saying now. I still prefer the other approach, but I understand your suggestion."
  • Level 2 (Disagreement) - The language starts to include self-protection. For example, team members may make statements like, "I know you think my idea won't work as well, but we tried your approach last time, and there were a lot of problems."
  • Level 3 (Contest) - The team members start using distorted language, such as over-generalizations and magnified positions (such as "He always takes over the demo" and "If only she wasn't on the team…").
  • Level 4 (Crusade) -The conflict becomes more ideological and polarized, such as "They're just plain wrong" and "It’s not even worth talking to them.”
  • Level 5 (World War) - The language is fully combative. Opposing team members rarely speak directly to each other, instead speaking to those “on their side” and expressing sentiments like, “It’s us or them” and “We have to beat them!”

2. Recognize Healthy Conflict

Reading through the list reminds us of how bad things can get, so we should review why some conflict is okay and, in fact, necessary. For this, let’s examine Patrick Lencioni's “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” model. Taken from Pat’s book with the same name, it explains that problems start at the base of the pyramid and build on top of each other:

5 Dysfunctions of a Team

The first level, the base of the pyramid, is Level 1: an absence of trust. When there is an unwillingness to be open within the group (for example, admitting gaps in knowledge or mistakes), trust does not develop within the team. This leads to the next dysfunction, a fear of conflict where teams that lack trust do not engage in unfiltered debate. Instead, they just resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.

This fear propagates up the pyramid, triggering the other problems. When there is a fear of conflict, it leads to problem 3: lack of commitment. Without passionate debate, team members rarely (if ever) buy-in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.

This is the heart of why healthy conflict is desirable. It allows for the robust testing of ideas that leads to a strong commitment to the final group decision. When we have a lack of trust and fear of conflict, teams do not commit; instead, they (at best) follow “the project plan,” but not their internally vetted approach (which is always more powerful and motivating).

The best teams I have worked with have ongoing conversations challenging each other's suggestions and decisions. They always seem to be engaged in good-natured argument. The goal is a non-attached understanding of the decision process, idea testing and consensus-building. These types of conflict are productive and desirable. So how do we recognize them?

The table below contrasts healthy and unhealthy types of debate:

Healthy and Unhealthy Conflict

A healthy argument is focused on the specific idea, the decision, the data. Unhealthy arguments make things personal or use generalizations to dismiss any thought or suggestions from the other party.

3. Learn How to De-Escalate

When we see these unhealthy signs of conflict, we can try some of the de-escalation strategies suggested in the original Five Levels model we examined. These are shown below.

Conflict Responses

So, for example, if we sense examples of Level 3 (contest-type) conflict, we could try negotiating and getting to the facts. This is an attempt to de-escalate and take it from personal to factual.

4. Protect Yourself and Others

How we try to resolve conflict brings us to our next model, the dual-concern grid by Langton and Sadri. This model describes conflict resolution modes plotted on an axis that shows “Concern for Ourself” (Y-axis) and “Concern for Others” (X-axis)

Dual Concern Conflict Resolution

There are many ways we can try to resolve conflict. We can use positional power and demand people stop arguing (graph top left: Use Force), but this is temporary and ineffective since it does not solve the problem. Alternatively, we could try to protect people by smoothing the problem instead and, say, do the work ourselves (graph bottom right: Accommodating). However, both of these approaches are sub-optimal.

Instead, we want to be in the upper-right quadrant of high concern for oneself and high concern for others. This is a collaborative mode of conflict resolution where we confront the issue and hopefully solve it. This all sounds good in theory, but how the heck do we face and collaboratively resolve conflict? This brings us to our last model.

5. Use the Confronting/Problem-Solving Steps

The “Three Steps for Managing Conflict Using a Confronting/Problem-Solving Approach” is a combination of various conflict-resolution models:

3 Steps for Managing Conflict

The three-step model starts with Step 1: defining the problem. This involves acknowledging the conflict, establishing common ground or goals (such as “we both want what is best for the organization”) and separating the problem from people. Next, Step 2 (explore and evaluate alternatives) is a “diverge” phase where many alternatives are explored and discussed. Finally, Step 3 (select best alternative) is the “converge” step where we agree on the best way forward.

As you can imagine, these tools are at best signposts on a tricky journey. They can help us navigate to a resolution, but they do not do the hard work of actively listening to both sides of the dispute and empathizing with people. That takes an investment of time and understanding. So too do the next steps of convincing people to let go of personal attachment to suggestions or opinions. Sometimes, people see things more objectively as they mature; sometimes they become more principled and entrenched in their thinking.

Conflicts are inevitable. At a healthy level, they are signs of a robust, vibrant team that is happy to test and improve their ideas and decisions. As conflict becomes personal, it also develops a damaging and counterproductive side. People disengage to distance and protect themselves. Then ideas are not tested so well, and blind spots and issues occur.

The solution is to care, to get involved, listen and try to diagnose the conflicts you see occurring. Do some reality testing by following up individually afterward: “You and Alisha seemed to be having a heated debate about the design. Did you come to an agreement you are okay with?"

Knowing when to let it go and when to step in is half the battle. Using these tools can help and provide some guidance when you do need to get involved.

 

Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Can We Still be Agile?

Can we still be agileHow does work from home impact our use of agile approaches? If co-location is no longer possible, can we still be agile?

Yes, of course we can, and in many ways, now we need to be more agile than ever as we try new approaches, learn and adapt how we work. However, let's address the co-location question and look at agile practices in remote work situations.

The Agile Manifesto and Agile Principles do not mention co-location. They do not say teams have to work together to be agile or effective. Instead, they say, "The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation" and "Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project."

Face-to-face (F2F) and daily business collaboration are certainly easier to arrange if people are co-located. However, most agile teams already had some remote workers before work-from-home instructions. The Digital.AI (formerly VersionOne) 2020 14th Annual State of Agile Survey reports 81% of respondents use agile approaches with remote team members (typically not the whole team, but a subset is remote).

Why F2F and Remote Alternatives
So, how do we do F2F remotely? The answer is with video. Instead of debating if video is F2F, let's look at where the F2F agile recommendation came from in the first place. Alistair Cockburn, an Agile Manifesto signatory, developed a popular graph to show various forms and levels of communication effectiveness. Later, Scott Ambler expanded the graph to show types of modeling and added video conversations.

The goal of the chart was to show how interactive, F2F discussions are more efficient in terms of data transfer per minute than traditional paper documentation and allow for questions and answers to clarify understanding. They also convey emotion through tone of voice and body language, so are richer forms of communication.  Here are the two graphs merged with F2F and video marked as points 1) and 2)…

Agile Communications

We can see both F2F 1) and Video conversation 2) are in the top right quadrant of the graph indicating high effectiveness and high richness (emotional temperature). Video is slightly lower on the curve than F2F conversation, but still significantly higher than working via email or documents. The highest form is working together at a whiteboard, where we also bring the benefits of visual collaboration.

I suspect there was not a lot of data behind the exact positioning of these communication forms. Instead, it is a visual to help discuss a continuum of information transfer formats. One conclusion is that if F2F is not possible, then video conferencing is our next best option, and it still allows us to get a feel for people's temperament and emotion about a topic. 

Other Agile Approaches
Rounding out our review of agile recommendations, the Scrum Guide does not mandate or even recommend co-location. It talks about teams working together to build a product. However, groups can work together on a product remotely. For instance, Jim could build the website while Rosa develops content. They are both working together on the product, just not physically together.

Extreme Programming (XP) includes the practice “Sit together” as one of its primary practices and notes “The more face time you have, the more humane and productive the project.” Remote teams fail to meet this practice recommendation and video face time is not the same as in-person face time. However, XP co-creator Kent Beck explains “sit together” is a goal and is not mandatory.

We should also remember when the agile principles were developed in 2001, video conferencing was not as straightforward or familiar as it is today. It was not until 2003 that Skype and other applications provided widely used and low-cost options for getting some face time.

Team Types
The image below shows different team composition types. First, Type-1 teams are fully collocated. According to agile surveys, these are the minority. The majority of agile teams are Type-2, which have a core of co-located team members, but also some remote team members. Finally, Type-3 teams are all remote, with everyone contributing from their own workplace.

Remote Team Types

During the COVID-19 response, many organizations have gone from Type-1 or Type-2 quickly to Type-3 due to work-from-home mandates. This change has brought about technology and work challenges, but also highlighted opportunities for the future.

A common problem with Type-2 teams is that there can be a division or communications gap between core co-located and remote team members. Some information may, unconsciously, not get shared with remote team members. Going all remote, Type-3, is a great leveler. Now everyone is in the same boat, and the need to communicate broadly is highlighted and universal.

Lessons from Experienced All-Remote Organizations
Many organizations have been successfully using Type-3, all-remote structures, for years. They deliberately chose this format and believe it offers many advantages.

Organizations like Automattic who build products including WordPress and Tumblr, employ over 1,100 people in 75 countries using an all-remote strategy. GitLab, makers of the code repository and development tools, has 1,295 team members spread across 67 countries using their all-remote work practices.

Automattic uses agile approaches to build its products. It created its own distributed team project management product called P2, that it uses to organize, communicate and build community. It also embodies some key aspirational goals in the Automattic Creed. These include:

  • Never stop learning
  • Do not just work on things assigned
  • There is no such thing as the status quo
  • Never pass up an opportunity to help a colleague
  • Communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company

The reference to oxygen in the communication concept is deliberate because too much oxygen can be fatal as well. As a group scales, it’s important to invest time from an editorial mindset making sure that the right information isn’t just published, but it’s heard and understood by those who need to.

GitLab also builds agile tools and uses agile approaches. It has a vast resource library about working remotely that any organization could learn a great deal from. Similar to the Agile Manifesto, Gitlab has its own published values and manifesto.

GitLab's six values are:

Collaboration
Results
Efficiency
Diversity
Inclusion & Belonging, Iteration
Transparency

…that together spell the “CREDIT” given each other by assuming good intent. Their remote manifesto reads:

  1. Hiring and working from all over the world instead of from a central location
  2. Flexible working hours over set working hours
  3. Writing down and recording knowledge over verbal explanations
  4. Written down processes over on-the-job training
  5. Public sharing of information over need-to-know access
  6. Opening up every document for editing by anyone over top-down control of documents
  7. Asynchronous communication over synchronous communication
  8. The results of work over the hours put in
  9. Formal communication channels over informal communication channels

Items 3, 4 and 9 favor written communications over verbal. In a remote setting, this is preferable so people can consume it wherever and whenever they please. Yet it is at odds with the Agile Manifesto that favors F2F communications with its immediate feedback and richer bandwidth. However, these remote organizations have an ace up the sleeve that likely more than makes up for any communication penalties.

People over Process
Accessing the best talent is the saving grace for remote teams. There have been many studies and speculation about the productivity differences between average and best-in-class workers. Some reports claim 2X, 3X and even 5X differences in software developers, but I suspect the data is shaky at best. Yet some classes of problems can either be solved or not. Working longer for someone unable to solve a problem is not going to help.

The argument for remote agile teams is that the efficiency penalty from sliding down the Communications Effectiveness graph from F2F to videoconference or documentation is more than made up for by having the best possible people. Also, because “work from wherever and whenever you like” offers great flexibility, the best talent is attracted and retained.

Remote Work and Agile Values
There are many parallels between all-remote work structures and agile principles.

  • Autonomy - For remote teams to function best, organizations adopt a results-oriented view of work. They trust their staff to work independently, collaborating and communicating as required to create the outcomes desired. They do not try to micro-manage or schedule tasks. Instead, they allow people to organize their work and operate with autonomy. This mindset closely mirrors “empowered teams” from agile approaches.
  • Transparency – People are encouraged and expected to communicate widely and frequently. Automattic’s “Communicate as much as possible” and GitHub’s “Formal communication channels over informal communication channels” emphasize communication. These ideas map to the agile and Kanban concepts about making work visible and Scrum’s Transparency pillar.
  • Challenge the Status Quo – People are expected to be curious and always looking for new markets and improvements. These concepts align well with the inspect and adapt ideas of retrospectives and continuous improvement in the agile mindset.
  • Iterate – Working iteratively is one of Gitlab’s core values and a central theme of agile approaches.
  • Valuing individuals – Recruiting globally and providing flexible work options, even if that means more written documentation, is an excellent example of living the agile value “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Summary
Remote teams can be agile. They do experience some disadvantages by not working together. All-remote, Type-3 organizations admit that onboarding can be a challenge, and communications take longer. However, access to the best talent, providing flexibility and autonomy offset these drawbacks.

When people value agile principles, they usually find a way to make it work no matter the circumstances. However, being agile is not the point; building an engaged, energetic workforce who support each other and create worthwhile outcomes is the real goal and measure of success. 

Useful Remote Work Resources

  1. GitLab “GitLab’s Guide to All-Remote”
  2. Automattic “On Working Remotely” 
  3. Stefan Walpers’ “Remote Agile Guide

 

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]

 


Returning to the (Electronic) Cottage

Electronic CottageThis is not a post about rich people now able to visit their second homes after the lockdown, instead, a revisit of the concepts of decentralized work being the new way of undertaking projects.

In 1980, Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave introduced the idea of “The Electronic Cottage” as the modern workplace where information technology allows more people to work from home or wherever they want. Toffler was a futurist and businessman who did not get the attention he deserved. Even though Accenture identified him as one of the most influential voices in business leaders (along with Bill Gates and Peter Drucker), we do not hear much about him.

When I was at university in the 1980s, we were required to read The Third Wave. At the time, I was more interested in learning about compiler design and database structures, but I read the book and the ideas stuck. Thinking back, The Third Wave, along with Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenace, are the only books from my entire degree that I still remember.

The First and Second Waves
The first wave was the agricultural revolution when hunter-gathers started farming and settled in villages.

The second wave was the industrial revolution, when cheap, non-renewable fossil fuel energy was used to leapfrog previous levels of productivity. This industrialization required mobility from the workforce, and people moved from villages into cities to work in mills and factories. This movement resulted in the end of the large multigenerational families rooted to the soil.

The “nuclear family” (of father, mother and a few children, with no burdening relatives) became the standard, socially approved model for industrial societies. Schools started emphasizing punctuality and rule-following to condition children for working in factories.

The Third Wave
The “third wave” is the information revolution. It is what Peter Drucker called the knowledge worker age. What set Toffler apart was his ability to see how the second industrial age must end and why the information age was inevitable in 1980, more than 10 years before the internet was invented (let alone became popular).

Toffler described factors that make the continuation of the second wave impossible, including: “The biosphere will no longer tolerate the industrial assault” and “Non-renewable energy sources are drying up (one of the hidden subsidies of the Second Wave).”

He went on to describe factors that made the third wave possible and inevitable. These included:

  • Cheaper electronics and computers: “If the auto industry had done what the computer industry has done in the last 30 years, a Rolls-Royce would cost $2.50 and get 2,000,000 miles to the gallon.” Computing is cheaper and more powerful than ever.
  • De-massification of the media: As the quantity of information available to people expands, they become less and less able to cope with it all. People fall back to paying attention to only what is important to them. We see a rise in the number of specialty channels appealing to narrow segments of the population.
  • An intelligent environment: Home computers networked together and notifying us of weather alerts, home security alarms, etc. What we now call the connected home and IoT.
  • A new social memory: Originally, human groups stored their shared memories in the minds of individuals (tribal elders, wise men, etc.). The second wave moved beyond memory by spreading mass literacy. Libraries and museums were built. By increasing the store of cumulative knowledge, it accelerated all the processes of innovation and social change. Now information is stored electronically and can be readily searched by all.

The fact these predictions came true show the credibility of Toffler’s forecasts for the electronic cottage. Our recent work-from-home mandate has accelerated the transition to the electronic cottage, and maybe some of Toffler’s other predictions about changes to work and society will come true also?

Here are a few things he said about this shift in working practices. The opening points are ideas from the book; the thoughts that follow are observations from today…

  1. IT makes it possible to work from home.Computers and electronic communications make it possible for many types of work to be done from home.

Observation from today: Recent work-from-home mandates have pushed even laggards of this technology to try it and work through the kinks. While everyone wishes for freedom to return, maybe we can capitalize on the positive aspects of working from home, or from a favorite café, or a pleasant, local co-working space?

  1. Commuting diminishes.Consider the cost incentives to companies. Commuting, which they indirectly subsidize, runs an average of 29 times as much as the installation of telecommunication equipment in a person’s home. Also, considerable savings in real estate costs, capital building investments, and building maintenance can be had. Staying at home will also reduce pollution and the cost of cleaning it up.

Observation from today: Most organizations do not need to pay for any additional equipment since many people have high-speed internet and their own computers. People may currently have less-than-ideal working conditions with children being home from school, but once they return, do you want to go back to commuting with the associated cost and time drains?

  1. Shorter work week:On the home side, as shorter workweeks become common, the higher ratio of commuting time to working time becomes more irrational, frustrating and absurd. Millions of jobs could shift out of the factories and office into which the second wave swept them and right back where they came from originally: the home. If this were to happen, every institution we know—from the family to the school and the corporation—would be transformed.

Observation from today: Our current glimpse of homework and closer family relationships is artificial and lacking many of the benefits of being able to escape to the company of friends when we want to. The FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early) has already seen people reduce the number of hours they work, consume less and spend less on nonessential items like expensive commuting options. Few people have been talking about impacts on family, but the nuclear family might become a relic of the past.

  1. Customization of products and in-home production:Most highly developed countries will concentrate on the creation of one-off and short-run manufactured goods depending on highly skilled labor and automated production systems. Customization will lead to the manufacture of one-of-a-kind products with items custom-made for individual users. This home-centered society will bring many changes:
  • Greater community stability due to less forced mobility, less stress on the individual, fewer transient human relationships, and a greater participation in community life.
  • Energy requirements will be reduced due to energy decentralization. Energy demand would be spread out, making it easier to use solar, wind and other alternative energy technologies.
  • The auto industry, oil companies and commercial real estate developers would be hurt.
  • The electronics industry, computer companies and the communications industries would flourish.
  • Increasingly, workers would own the means of production.

Observation from today: We are seeing these shifts already. As I sit typing this from home, a 3D printer next to me is producing something (incredibly slowly) that my wife designed. Increasingly, we can create and customize products from home or locally within the community.

  1. Radically changed corporations:The big corporation was the characteristic business organization of the industrial era. Just like families, the mass media and schools, corporations are facing drastic changes:
  • An accelerated economy: There is a drastic speed-up in the pace of business. An accelerating wave of change, pushed by the coming third wave, is causing disorientation, frustration and increased mistakes on the part of managers.
  • The de-massified society: Today, as the third wave strikes, the corporate manager finds all their old assumptions challenged... the marketplace and the labor market are beginning to break into smaller, more varied pieces. Second wave corporations are uncertain how to cope with this rising tide of diversity among their employees and customers.
  • Public anger at corporations: People are demanding a new definition of what corporations are and what they do. They want to see more responsibility and more accountability—not merely for its economic performance, but for its side effects on everything from air pollution to executive stress. The result will be corporations who attend to multiple bottom lines. Some examples are already happening as organizations are focusing attention on social impacts as well as economic results.

Observation from today: Incredibly, those words were written 40 years ago—they read like a modern description of emerging organizations. Just recently, PMI started talking about the triple bottom line (people, profit, planet). Organizations now revolve around the customer, and customer experience analysis is driving more diversification of products along with accelerating rates of change.

What this Means for Project Managers
The way we engage with teams is likely to be different in the future. For projects in the knowledge worker space (legal, marketing, sales, education, IT, research and development), having whole teams onsite will likely become a rarity. These roles can be done from the electronic cottage, whether that is someone’s home, a café or a community co-working center.

Work times for project work will likely relax, and family activities take a more influential focus. Industrial factories needed everyone in one location—at the same time—to function. Knowledge work does not; as project managers, we need to get used to that and accommodate for it. Maybe we need everyone to be available for core meetings, but outside of that, we let people work when they want to. As long as they meet their commitments, why does it matter when the work gets done?

The Future
Not all of Toffler’s predictions became true. He also suggested we would be growing a significant proportion of our food needs in the oceans. That might be possible, but we have not seen it happening yet.

The second wave of industrialization brought tremendous economic growth and technological development. Yet those brief 300 years were non-sustainable to the planet—and also ripped people from homes and family structures that had existed for 10,000 years previously. Nobody is suggesting we return to being farmers. Instead, do more creative work without the time and space constraints industrialized work demanded.

It seems the world of work is changing to meet Toffler’s predictions. Perhaps the social forecasts about a revival of putting down roots, staying in one place and returning to live with extended families will happen also. Recent events seem to be accelerating these trends, and I am optimistic about our future.

References

  1. The Third Wave Book
  2. The Third Wave Book Summary
  3. Alvin Toffler Wikipedia Bio

 

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]