Managing Conflict in Agile Teams

I recently saw a LinkedIn post from someone who was requesting advice on how to manage conflict on Agile teams. One response was to remove the people who are causing the conflict from the team. That may not be an appropriate solution – some level of conflict is necessary and healthy in a high performance team. A team where everyone always agrees with everyone else on the team would probably not be a very high performance team. In this particular situation, the conflict was occurring over estimation and that’s an area where you certainly want to bring out opposing views and attempt to resolve them rather than suppress them.

The right way to manage conflict on an Agile team is not to try to stifle conflict but to accept some values among the team to listen to the views of others and treat them with respect and consideration if you disagree with them. Each person on the team also needs to put their own ego and emotions aside and instead of focusing on who’s right and wrong, focus on working collaboratively with others towards what is in the best interest of the team and the business. Some times people become argumentative and pursue an argument just to have the last word or try to prove that they’re right and others are wrong – that behavior can be very counter-productive. Having a clearly-defined set of values that everyone on the team agrees to is a good way to minimize that kind of behavior.

I suggest that anyone who wants to learn more about team dynamics do some reading on “Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development”. It’s an excellent model for understanding the stages teams go through in the journey to becoming a high performance team. Here’s a brief summary – Tuckman’s model consists of four stages:

  1. Forming
    “Individual behavior is driven by a desire to be accepted by the others, and avoid controversy or conflict. Serious issues and feelings are avoided, and people focus on being busy with routines, such as team organization, who does what, when to meet, etc. But individuals are also gathering information and impressions – about each other, and about the scope of the task and how to approach it. This is a comfortable stage to be in, but the avoidance of conflict and threat means that not much actually gets done.”
  2. Storming

    “Individuals in the group can only remain nice to each other for so long, as important issues start to be addressed. Some people’s patience will break early, and minor confrontations will arise that are quickly dealt with or glossed over. These may relate to the work of the group itself, or to roles and responsibilities within the group. Some will observe that it’s good to be getting into the real issues, whilst others will wish to remain in the comfort and security of stage 1. Depending on the culture of the organization and individuals, the conflict will be more or less suppressed, but it’ll be there, under the surface. To deal with the conflict, individuals may feel they are winning or losing battles, and will look for structural clarity and rules to prevent the conflict persisting.”

  3. Norming

    “As Stage 2 evolves, the “rules of engagement” for the group become established, and the scope of the group’s tasks or responsibilities are clear and agreed. Having had their arguments, they now understand each other better, and can appreciate each other’s skills and experience. Individuals listen to each other, appreciate and support each other, and are prepared to change pre-conceived views: they feel they’re part of a cohesive, effective group. However, individuals have had to work hard to attain this stage, and may resist any pressure to change – especially from the outside – for fear that the group will break up, or revert to a storm.”

  4. Performing

    “Not all groups reach this stage, characterized by a state of interdependence and flexibility. Everyone knows each other well enough to be able to work together, and trusts each other enough to allow independent activity. Roles and responsibilities change according to need in an almost seamless way. Group identity, loyalty and morale are all high, and everyone is equally task-orientated and people-orientated. This high degree of comfort means that all the energy of the group can be directed towards the task(s) in hand.”

  5. There are a couple of important things to recognize about this model:

    • You can’t just jump past the “Storming” stage and go right to the “Performing” stage unless the people on the team have a lot of maturity on working in other teams. You have to progress through these stages to some extent to make progress. For that reason, conflict should be viewed as a sign of progress that you’ve moved past the “forming” stage.
    • You don’t necessarily always proceed through these stages in a strict sequential order…sometimes a team will regress and fall back to an earlier stage and start over from that point and you might go back-and-forth like that over a period of time.
    • The natural progression for a team that is in conflict is to move to the “norming” stage and you do that by adopting rules and values of how the team interacts with each other. Those rules and values are like “training wheels on a bike”. After teams have reached a point of maturity, those rules become just a natural part of people’s behavior and the team reaches the “performing” stage which is similar to riding a bike without the “training wheels”.

    Source: “Stages of Group Development”

    One of the key points in this model is the conflict is a normal and necessary stage of progression on the journey to becoming a high-performance team. For that reason, you shouldn’t try to stifle conflict – the best approach is to manage it by setting values so that it doesn’t become destructive.

Lessons Learned From Sports

I think there are a lot of lessons we can learn from sports, particularly about the importance of character, integrity, teamwork, and values.

There’s been a lot in the news lately in the US about the conduct of some sports celebrities (Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens and others). Some people have questioned why we should hold sports celebrities to a higher standard than other kinds of employment. For example, a normal company wouldn’t necessarily fire an employee for beating their kids or having a public altercation with their spouse; but that behavior isn’t acceptable in a sports celebrity. I think there’s a couple of good reasons for holding sports celebrities to a higher standard.

  1. The first reason is that they provide an important role model for kids and others to follow. I just saw a short story on TV about Deandre Jordan (the center for the LA Clippers) that is a great example of that – it showed him working with a bunch of 9-10 year old kids on a basketball team to teach them the importance of character, integrity, and teamwork in sports. That’s the kind of positive role models we need in sports – people who go beyond what’s expected to try to have a positive influence on people in the communities that they are part of. Kids and others in the community look up to people like that and we need more role models like that.
  2. The second reason is probably more directly relevant to Agile Project Management. One of the important factors that binds a high performance team is that they share a set of values and a sense of purpose that goes beyond just showing up for work, doing their jobs, and going home at the end of the day. Their jobs are an extension of the way they live their lives and there’s a real sense of purpose and values behind it. They are also really true to those values – it isn’t just something that they practice in public and put aside when it’s not publicly visible.
  3. If we lower our standards to the level that it’s OK for people (particularly prominent sports celebrities) just do their jobs as long as they don ‘t do anything outside of work that might be considered a crime, it seems to me that we’ve let our standards drop too far. I’m proud to be part of the Agile Project Management community and part of some very dedicated and principled people who hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Mastering Agile Project Management Online Training Course

I’ve just finished piloting a brand new Mastering Agile Project Management online training course and it came out great! My thanks to everyone who participated in the pilot of the course and provided feedback and inputs! You can view a quick video summary of the course here:

Video Course Summary

This course will help people see Agile and traditional project management approaches in a very different light as complementary to each other rather than competitive and help project managers develop an adaptive approach that blends these two approaches together in the right proportions to fit any situation. For a limited amount of time, I’m offering 50% off the cost of the course to the first 200 people to take the course and provide a review. The course normally costs $39; however, with this 50% discount, the cost of the course is reduced to only $19. To take advantage of this discount, please use the link below:

50% Off Discount Coupon

PMI Project Managers should be able to claim up to 3 PDU’s for taking this course. I’m very anxious to get any feedback and inputs on this new course!

New Agile Project Management Online Training Course!

I’ve just finished piloting a brand new Agile Project Management Overview online training course and it came out great! My thanks to everyone who participated in the pilot of the course and provided feedback and inputs! You can view a quick video summary of the course here:

Video Course Summary

This course will help people see Agile and traditional project management approaches in a very different light as complementary to each other rather than competitive and help project managers develop an adaptive approach that blends these two approaches together in the right proportions to fit any situation. For a limited amount of time, I’m offering 50% off the cost of the course to the first 200 people to take the course and provide a review. The course normally costs $39; however, with this 50% discount, the cost of the course is reduced to only $19. To take advantage of this discount, please use the link below:

50% Off Discount Coupon

PMI Project Managers should be able to claim 3 PDU’s for taking this course. I’m very anxious to get any feedback and inputs on this new course!

Agile Project Management Overview Course

I am beginning to develop some online training courses that I will offer through Udemy on Agile Project Management. My goal is to help close the gap between the traditional project management community and the Agile community. I am almost ready to release the first of those courses, but I would like to do a pilot of it with a few selected people before I release it to the general public and the followers of this blog site would probably be high on my list for people to do that pilot review.

This initial course is fairly basic and consists of 12 lectures totaling about an hour and a half altogether. This course is primarily intended for project managers who have a traditional project management background and may have little or no background in Agile. Other courses that I am working on that I’m not ready to release yet will go into much more depth. The major objective of this course is to help shift people’s mindset to see Agile and traditional project management principles and practices as complementary rather than competitive with each other.

Here’s some information on the course, please send me an e-mail if you would be interested in piloting it and giving me your feedback and inputs before I release it to the general public:

Video Course Summary: (Approx 6 minutes) View Video Course Summary

Course Summary:
The concept of Agile Project Management is very rapidly evolving and will have a significant impact on the project management profession; however, we are in the early stages of that transformation and there is a lot of confusion about what impact it has on project managers:

  • There are many stereotypes and misconceptions that exist about both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management,
  • Agile and traditional project management principles and practices are treated as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two and sometimes seen as in conflict with each other
  • Agile and “Waterfall” are thought of as two binary, mutually-exclusive choices and companies sometimes try to force-fit their business and projects to one of those extremes when the right solution is to fit the approach to the project

This course will help you unravel a lot of the confusion that exists; develop a totally new perspective to see both Agile and traditional project management principles and practices in a new light as complementary to each other rather than competitive; and learn to develop an adaptive approach to project management to blend those principles and practices together in the right proportions to fit any situation.

Course Goals and Objectives:

  • Develop an objective understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of both an Agile and traditional plan-driven approach to project management and how they can be combined in the right proportions to fit any given situation in an integrated approach to Agile Project Management
  • Learn what’s fundamentally different about Agile Project Management and the shifts in thinking that project managers might need to make to operate successfully in an Agile environment
  • Better understand the impact of Agile on the project management profession, the new challenges that Agile creates for project managers, and the potential roles that an Agile Project Manager can play