What is Conflict?
On an abstract level, conflict can be imagined as the result of two opposing forces being exerted one upon another. It is similar to the action and reaction principle from physics. Conflict can be further classified as internal conflict or external conflict.
If we dive deeper, internal conflict can be defined as the sum of our inner thoughts and feelings that produce anxiety, restlessness, and pressure.
Similarly, we can define external conflict at an individual, organization, or state level. External conflict can be present between two or more individuals that are part of a group or form a group; between groups of individuals or between two or more states. Most frequently, conflict has its foundation in partial or total disagreement on certain topics or issues.
Unaddressed conflict leads to delays or unfulfillment in an individual’s objectives (internal conflict) or a collective (external conflict).
Deep diving further, if we reference the business environment, we can discuss organizational conflict (the conflict that appears inside organizations). Over time, there have been multiple visions about the perception of conflict. Traditionally, during the ‘90s, conflict was characterized as a factor that needed to be avoided, resulting from errors made by management in departmental projections of an organization. This was believed to ultimately lead to not attaining an optimal business performance. Therefore, one of the essential purposes of management was to eliminate conflict, given the perception that it was something inherently negative.
Over time, the initial organizational theories on conflict have evolved and adapted to modern times. We are now in a rapid age, a period of constant technological breakthroughs characterized by dynamism, where complex business environments and organizations are present. As a result, conflict evolved to be perceived as an inevitable element in the lifecycle of any organization. Even more, the negative connotation started to alter towards a positive one, with conflict being perceived increasingly as an opportunity to explore new ideas, approaches, and daring thoughts that can lead to additional added value for a business.
Conflict in Agile Teams?
If we think about software development and development teams that operate with the Agile Mindset – the natural question appears: How is Conflict perceived in Agile teams? Is conflict bad, negative (like the traditional theories described by classics), or can it be something good, positive, or valuable?
The answers to this question are both yes and no. We consider that there is not an absolute answer to this question, as we need to consider a set of factors: the team’s degree of maturity, the business context, the project environment, the level, and the frequency of conflicts. However, conflict in Agile teams is often seen as an opportunity to learn, try something new, and help progress in a direction when a well-defined and common purpose exists inside a team.
We can imagine the conflict as a sleeping volcano with chilled solid magma. Over time, as external or internal factors appear and start to shake up the magma, this can suffer transformations through pressure and transform into hot and explosive lava, rising to the volcano’s peak until it erupts and affects everything and everyone around. This natural process that can happen to volcanos is like the potential levels of conflict. Even more, as is the case for nature, in life, there are multiple types of volcanos (dome-volcano, shield-volcano, etc.) and many eruption types (pelean, Hawaiian, etc.) – the same thing can be said about conflicts.
In any project lifecycle, conflict is an inevitable part, always present. Almost every time the human component is present in the attempt of problem-solving, there can appear differences in opinion and disagreements. An appropriate degree of conflict in Agile and teams that operate with this mindset is healthy because it generates exploring different perspectives when identifying solutions to problems. At the same time, conflict can be monitored to not escalate in an extreme area that would damage the team members and the project (with the potential to create a toxic environment when the conflict is not addressed in the initial phases). The key to conflict management is creating a project environment where conflict is constructive both inside the team but also for stakeholders.
Speed B Leas’ model – an expert in conflict management and resolution- is a very well-known model both in traditional and modern management. Through this model, we can analyze the current state of conflict by observing the language used by the parties in order to diagnose it and ultimately choose the best strategy to de-escalate the conflict.
Therefore, Leas defined in his model 5 potential levels of conflict:
- Level 1 – Problem to Solve;
- Level 2 – Disagreement;
- Level 3 – Contest;
- Level 4 – Crusade;
- Level 5 – World War.
Level 1- Problem to Solve: this stage is characterized by open language, full of constructive arguments over a topic with the scope of knowledge sharing and collaboration. The participants in this level of conflict are trying to find the optimal solution. Team members have different opinions, and there is an uncomfortable but not an emotionally charged atmosphere. To resolve the conflict at this level, the involved parties need to reach a consensus, an alignment where everyone agrees, through collaboration (a win-win situation for everyone involved).
Level 2 – Disagreement: in this stage, the discussions and approaches are no longer related to a problem or topic or the initial issue but rather about protecting each member’s or group’s personal interest. Team members choose to be distant and detached, constructive arguments are reinterpreted, and their meanings are distorted. Part of the team decides to step away from the vocal members that are in conflict. Sometimes, there are even jokes made with ill intent, filled with irony. Communication about the issue happens outside the main group, moving on to an individual level. The language is used to protect the transmitter and is lightly accusatory (example: “I know you don’t like my idea, but last time we tried yours and it was a failure and a waste of time”). The recommended strategy for this conflict level would be to leave the discussions and the resolution of the issue up to the team’s key members until they find the middle ground. This strategy supports team decision-making, which in Agile fits well, as teams are encouraged to be self-managed and empowered to make the best decisions.
Level 3 – Contest: when the conflict rises to this level, it becomes more critical for an individual or a group to triumph over any other. Problem-solving is no longer the focus and becomes a secondary objective. The language is characterized by personal attacks, overgeneralizations, assumptions, and exaggerations to distort the message’s true meaning. The team members start forming sub-groups inside the team and take sides with the key players active in the conflict. The objective of those involved in this conflict is victory over the other. This type of conflict builds on previous unresolved, unaddressed issues, which people leverage in current discussions. Here are three strategies recommended in this situation:
- Compromise through considering all perspectives and points of view and trying to implement as much as possible of them. This action can impact the quality of the work but can save relationships between team members.
- Negotiate – if it is still possible to find the middle ground for both parties.
- Continuously discuss openly based on data gathered.
For Project Managers, Scrum Masters, and Agile Coaches, which sometimes have an instinctual tendency to resolve the conflict immediately, we recommend for these first three levels to allow the team to solve the conflict by themselves, to let the team members find the solution on their own, but at the same time to actively monitor and be ready to mitigate when needed (through collaborative games, facilitation, and re-framing through open discussions)
Level 4 – Crusade: at this level of conflict, the situation escalates between sub-groups of the same team (team-level conflict) or between larger groups (if it escalates even outside the team). The objective for each party during this level of conflict is to protect each group’s interests. Since resolving the conflict or issue is no longer a concern, each group desires to attain victory over the other. The language used is ideological and aggressive: “It is not worth engaging them”, “Nothing they say makes sense”, “The other team is completely wrong”. To resolve or mitigate this conflict, someone must intervene with cautious diplomacy, as team members can no longer resolve the conflict independently. It is necessary for someone external to act as facilitator or mediator for those in conflict, to share messages between each party, and through tact and prudence to de-escalate the conflict one or two levels below.
If we remember the initial conflict and volcano comparison – this level can be imagined as the last moment before the volcano erupts.
Level 5 – World War: this is the last stage of conflict represented by total war. This goes beyond only achieving victory over a group, as each group wants to destroy the other. The environment is highly emotionally charged, and communication is almost non-existent. It is recommended for those that reach this increased level of conflict to be separated before they hurt each other. In most cases, at this point, no one can reach a healthy conclusion. Basically, at this level of conflict, the volcano has erupted, and lava is flying all around, impacting the surroundings. If conflict reaches this level, it is possible to be no longer able to resolve it completely. In some situations, it is more beneficial to figure out how individuals can live with the conflict rather than fixing it completely. For example, we can employ the strategy of separating individuals or groups (moving to a different team or outside the project) to mitigate the harm an individual or a group can do over the project.
In conclusion, conflict is ever-present in the projects where we operate. Therefore, we should be aware of it and develop the ability to analyze, diagnose, resolve, and mitigate it before it escalates and becomes an irreparable impact on the work, the team, and the business objectives.
The Model of Speed B Leas is an ideal model for identifying the conflict stages and their severity, and we can leverage it to build solid strategies for mitigating and resolving conflict. Whenever we find ourselves in the role of facilitator or mediator – it is important always to be objective, strive to be emotionally detached from the narrative of ongoing events, and do our best to help those involved in the conflict to de-escalate it and continue to move forward.
Author: George Petcu