When Conflict Is Baked In: Bridging Structural Conflict

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And, there it was (with a little reframing to get the blame out)-an area where the two groups could work together. Redefining "done" and making a production checklist gave them a chance to work together on a small, bounded project. Working together on a shared goal would help each group understand the other's context, know each other as people, and understand how their different concerns added up to a similarity: "Our work is critical to the business."

There's some wrangling yet to come before these two groups stand down, join hands, and sing "Kumbayah." Some people may even be reluctant to give up their belief that "those people" are idiots. It is convenient to have someone to blame rather than recognize that some conflicts can't be resolved, and it doesn't imply anything about intelligence or motives. It's not likelyor desirablethat the two groups become of one mind on all things. They do different work; what's necessary is that they find a way to cooperate and coordinate in a way that meets the goal of delivery and stability.

If you find your group in conflict with another, you can try this exercise to bring some needed coherence. First, discern that it is a structural conflict. Conflicts of this sort tend to happen when there are different departments or goals, different professional interests, different types and rhythms of work, and when the teams do not have an interdependent goal at the level where they do their work. Everyone in a company may have a goal of "producing valuable products profitably," but at a department level, groups may be at odds. For example, both developers and auditors want the company to be successful, but they have different roles in meeting that goal, which often feel at odds, i.e., structural conflict.

Here's another check. Some structural conflicts are self-imposed, as when testers and developers report to different managers and are measured differently. Testers and developers do have an interdependent goal: It takes both testing and development skills to deliver a complete and reliable product. If you bring together both on a cross-functional team, the conflict usually dissolves.

If you feel it really is a structural conflict, find someone neutral to facilitate the session. Get both groups in the room. Avoid recrimination and blame, and establish the following ground rules to keep the discussion productive:

No labels. That means neither group can say the other group is lazy, sloppy, or a bunch of slackers. Positive labels aren't much better; they don't give specific information, and they imply that one side is empowered to evaluate the other. The power-difference message comes through whether the labels are negative or positive.

No characterizations about motives or intelligence. Remember the fundamental attribution error? People and groups that are in conflict develop stories about the "others." Over time, these can evolve into harsh judgments about the others' motivation, intelligence, and general fitness as human beings. The judgments show up in statements such as "They don't care about quality," "They don't get it," and worse.

When you catch yourself saying something like "They don't care about X," rebuild the sentence as "They have a different perspective on X." Rebuild "They don't get it" to "They don't see it the same way I do," which might just prompt you to think, "And I bet I don't see it they way they do. I wonder what they see that I don't."

Make the list. Write down all the ways the groups are the same and how they are different.

Consider these questions to help the group process the list: 

  • Which differences can be negotiated or changed?
  • Which ones are most significant?
  • Which similarities and differences help us do our work? Which ones get in the way?
  • Would it help us do our work if we were more the same? More different?

Not all differences make a difference, and not all differences can (or should) be eliminated. We need different skills, different points of view, and different professional concerns to create valuable products.

The point is to find something that the two groups can work on together to build a bridge. Then, when conflict arises again (and it will) they'll have some common ground to land on (the similarities) and at least one experience of working together.

Sometimes, fate intervenes to give two groups a common goallike a fire or flood in the office. After fighting fire or flood, groups tend to see each other as real human beings, not the sum of misattributed characterizations. I don't wish fire or flood on anyone, so look around for additional natural opportunities for to work togetherbut don't start fires.

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular StickyMinds.com and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at www.estherderby.com and on her weblog at www.estherderby.com/weblog/blogger.html. Her email is derby@estherderby.com.

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