When we hear the word “conflict” it normally gives a negative feeling and we have been tuned to consider the consequence of conflict always to be unpleasant. But we forget that we are all humans who are free to express and should not expect other’s opinions to be the same as ours.
I recommend that even while working with agile teams, we should have a similar mindset and try to resolve it in a very constructive way causing no damage. Teams with conflicts are far better than “silent teams” who do not express their views which might lead to issues in the long run. When you have conflicts, it at least gives the opportunity to know what each other in the team thinks and will help to arrive at an amicable solution that benefits all.
The only word of caution here is it is important to distinguish between productive ideological conflict from fighting and interpersonal conflicts. The scrum master plays a major role in conflict management as he/she is the servant leader and is responsible for creating a more collaborative and trustful atmosphere.
Below are the key pointers I would recommend for managing conflicts in scrum teams,
How to avoid conflicts? Scrum Teams are already familiar with values and principles as stated in the Agile Manifesto, but when working in proximity they might lose sight and it's possible that conflicts arise. As a scrum master, it is important to remind the team of the five dysfunctions of the team and how these might be the source of conflict. These dysfunctions will map to any team facing conflict and the author Patrick Lencioni outlines them very clearly in the form of a pyramid.
- Absence of Trust – When the team members don’t trust each other, they might not be vulnerable and there will be no openness in communication. This might lead to a lot of conflicts as they don’t speak what they think. As we can see the absence of trust is the base of the pyramid and creating trust is inevitable. When the teams become vulnerable and transparent, eventually it will result in closer bonding built on trust with mutual respect.
- Fear of Conflict – There might be teams who remain silent and don’t speak up even if they know something is wrong fearing conflicts will arise. This happens when there is the absence of trust and the teams will not engage in open discussions but will pass only guarded comments which will not result in the expected outcome.
- Lack of Commitment – When teams do not voice their opinions and engage in discussions fearing conflict, they will not be able to commit. Even though they might pretend to commit, it might not be with fulfilment which will reflect in the delivery.
- Avoidance of accountability – When the team does not trust each other, fear conflict and unable to commit there will be no sign of accountability. Since they did not voice their opinions, they will remain ignorant even if their peers, the behaviour was counterproductive.
- Inattention to results – When there is no accountability its certainly going to impact on the results. This will occur when the team does not see the big picture and prioritize their own needs it will lead to failure of the team goals.
These five dysfunctions are like a chain and when one of them starts flourishing it will destroy the entire chain. So, the scrum teams should work towards being a team,
- Where they trust each other.
- Engage in productive engaging discussions respecting each other’s views.
- Commit to decisions and stick to their commitment.
- Be accountable.
- Work towards achieving collective team results.
- The teams engaging in conflict should be able to understand the purpose. They should ensure that the outcome of the conflict should be productive. Below is the difference in behaviour between teams that engage in conflict compared to the teams who fear to engage as highlighted by Patrick Lencioni.
- As a scrum master, it's very important that conflicts are managed in a more constructive way leading to positive change rather than causing drift in teams. The scrum master can also maintain an “impediment backlog” so that he/she is aware of the impediments. The scrum master should let the team resolve and intervene only when required. Self-organized teams should be allowed to manage the conflicts themselves. Issues need to be brought to the surface to be open and transparent. The scrum master should get involved only when blaming begins and should redirect the discussion towards the expected outcome. Once the resolution is achieved the scrum master should ensure that everyone understands how the problem has been resolved. Retrospective sessions provide a good opportunity to highlight how a collaborative resolution was achieved.
- Conflicts might also arise in the day to day activities at the task level for e.g., it could be that one team member complains that the other is not supportive enough and focusses on personal stuff. In these types of situations, the scrum master should be very careful of not getting caught up in any gossips but ensure it is resolved smoothly. The scrum master can suggest the complainer talk to the person about who he is complaining about. If he is not comfortable this can happen in the presence of the scrum master. The scrum master should be cautious of not taking sides or showing favouritism to any of the team members.
While resolving conflicts the scrum master should imagine being in a position that helps to be grounded and analyze the situation. Some tips to keep in mind include,
- Identify if it is a dispute or a conflict, as disputes are short-lived and might be usually towards a particular outcome or solution.
- Separate yourselves from the situation and do not keep any preferred outcome in mind.
- Make sure that the problem is clearly understood by both parties.
- Drive the team to solutions-based conversations and create a collaborative space where they can engage in open discussions.
- In my personal experience, there had been many instances in my startup where I had to resolve conflicts. One of them was that the workload of each team member was different, and they felt that some of them work more compared to others. They did not voice this to me, but I noticed that they were not open and engaging during scrum ceremonies. Being a distributed team across two locations, this kind of feeling cannot be rejected outright as they are not collocated in the same office. When I noticed this, I started talking to each member on this topic in my one-one sessions. Later I brought this up in one of the retrospective sessions and the team was given the opportunity to talk on why a few of them thought so. The discussion was open and gave the team the opportunity to understand how the workload was distributed and they agreed to be cross-trained and share the workload when needed.
The antidote to conflict – It's very important for teams to develop the ability to engage in healthy conflicts and acknowledge that conflicts are productive and should not be avoided. Patrick Lencioni suggests a few methods as below to engage in productive conflicts,
- Mining: Team members who tend to avoid conﬂict must occasionally assume the role of a “miner of conflict” who extracts buried disagreements within the team and is able to highlight them with courage and confidence.
- Real-Time Permission: While processing conflicts, team members should remind one another that they are doing to engage in healthy debate and is going to lead to a productive outcome
- Other Personality Tools: The team can understand each other’s personality styles and behavior by using various profiling tools. For conflict handling, Thomas-Kilmann Conﬂict Mode Instrument (TKI) can be tried to understand the inclinations towards conflicts and how to make choices appropriate to the situation.
- The role of the Scrum Master in conflict management is very crucial. It is very challenging to encourage healthy conflicts and at the same time protecting the team members from harm. The scrum master should be level-headed and let the team develop the skills of conflict management themselves. Though it may sound odd initially, the team should be allowed to engage in conflict and arrive at resolution naturally. The scrum master should intervene only when the conflict leads to interpersonal attacks or gets distracted from the topic in discussion.
In conclusion, conflicts should be opportunities for the team to become more mature and lead them to a high-performance path and should be handled with lots of positivity. The scrum master should possess this mindset and understand that conflicts are inevitable in a team and should ensure that it does not deviate from the purpose of the team’s existence.