Unsolvable Conflict on Agile Teams

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Summary:
Do you ever get the feeling that some conflict just can't be solved? The team members in conflict address the issue, it seems to go away but then it comes back. Maybe all dressed up in a new situation or with a different level of intensity, but the conflict is somehow familiar and you know that it has undoubtedly returned. If the team uses humor as a stress-reliever, you may even hear the conflict turned into a sarcastic half-joke, "OK team, just to put you on notice. Julie hates me again." Sounds almost like a marriage, doesn't it?

Do you ever get the feeling that some conflict just can't be solved? The team members in conflict address the issue, it seems to go away but then it comes back. Maybe all dressed up in a new situation or with a different level of intensity, but the conflict is somehow familiar and you know that it has undoubtedly returned. If the team uses humor as a stress-reliever, you may even hear the conflict turned into a sarcastic half-joke, "OK team, just to put you on notice. Julie hates me again." Sounds almost like a marriage, doesn't it?

Dr. John Gottman's 20-year research into what makes marriages work and fail offers this: 69% of issues in marriages are perpetual. [1] They do not go away. There is no way to solve them. In the extreme, you can divorce and remarry with the likely result that you will have traded one set of perpetual issues for another. The lesson is that conflict lives in the marital relationship.

How does information about conflict in marriage, a very personal and intimate relationship, relate to Agile teams? To answer this, listen for the conversations that happen during a typical day on a healthy Agile team. You'll hear talk about things like mammogram results, coping with elder parents, frustrations with visiting in-laws, upcoming vacation plans, advice on raising kids and much more. On exceptionally healthy teams, you will hear team members talk to one another at an even deeper level of intimacy. They will discuss their fears about the upcoming performance evaluation cycle, whether they feel valued on the team and how their work on the team does or does not mesh with their personal growth goals. Relationships on Agile teams are intimate . The expectation of unsolvable conflict is as valid in this context as in a marriage.

The world of professional coaching applies Dr. Gottman's research to groups of all sorts. [2] Business partners, teams, organizations - they all benefit from the coaching perspective that some conflict is simply unsolvable. Sounds hopeless, doesn't it? While it's true that the conflict is unsolvable, coaches are taught all is not lost - there is a "way out." Rather than focusing on unraveling and resolving conflict, the "way out" is to navigate through it by increasing the positivity in the group. Simply put, the goal is to increase the number of positive interactions among the team members. We, in the Agile community, can follow this path and apply the same thoughts and tools to our teams when they experience unsolvable conflict.

Coaching teams to navigate conflict may be unfamiliar territory for you. It is for most, even though books, articles and studies on the subject abound. As a plan-driven project manager, I didn't have to "go there" with conflict very often because team members were coming onto the team and leaving the team as we moved from phase to phase. If my novice attempts to solve a conflict was less than successful, no big loss. Sooner or later, the team members in conflict would move on to other projects. With Agile, however, the team members stay together throughout the project. They will not move on, nor will the conflict. Given this, as an Agile coach I am called to move into the unfamiliar, address my personal discomfort with conflict and build skills that I can use to help teams navigate conflict.

One of those skills is to teach the team about unsolvable conflict. A good first action is to let the team know that it is expected and normal. Tell them that the way to live

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About the author

Lyssa Adkins's picture Lyssa Adkins

Since 2004 Lyssa Adkins has taught Scrum to hundreds of students, coached many agile teams, and served as master coach to many apprentice coaches. In both one-on-one settings and small groups, she enjoys a front-row seat as remarkable agile coaches emerge and go on to entice the very best from the teams they help. Prior to agile, Lyssa had more than fifteen years of expertise leading project teams and groups of project managers, yet nothing prepared her for the power of agile done simply and well. Lyssa authored Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition.

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