Unsolvable Conflict on Agile Teams

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 successfully with unsolvable conflict is to increase the number of positive interactions to navigate the conflict when it arises. In addition, there are two broad classes of tools you can use to help teams navigate unsolvable conflict and turn it into a positive force for growth, or at least greater tolerance. They are: avoid misunderstanding build-up and use a shared vision.

Avoid misunderstanding build-up

Have you ever noticed that team members sometimes talk past one another? You may notice that they talk more than they listen, leaving true understanding behind. Or, maybe a voice has yet to be heard. Someone has something to say, but is not ready to risk speaking up. Without knowing this, the team moves on and leaves that team member in the dust.

As their coach, you note these things because you are paying attention to the quality in the conversation, but the team - embroiled in the work - probably doesn't notice. They need you to help tune their ears so they can learn to listen for quality in the conversation. When they do this, they will avoid misunderstanding build-up and they will increase the positivity in the relationships. All of this makes unsolvable conflict livable.

There are two simple tools you can teach them to help avoid misunderstandings and, as a by-product, increase the positivity in the group: consent check and consensus check. Consent check is used when it sounds like all the voices that want to be heard are being heard and the group is generally moving toward a shared conclusion. Consensus check is used when all voices are not being heard and it is unclear whether the team is moving toward a shared conclusion.

Let's say you are in a retrospective and the team is discussing whether to change their standup time to 1pm. Through the conversation, you notice that most people have spoken and no one has been talked-over or ignored. The general energy of the group is upbeat and it seems they are in sync with one another. In this case, I might ask for a consent check: "Is there anyone who objects to moving the standup to 1pm?" This question is purposely phrased in the negative, to give explicit permission for a team member to speak up if there is an objection.

The conversation about moving the standup time to 1pm could take a different tone. Let's say that some of the team members are in favor of moving the standup time and have spoken about the virtues of doing so. Others have raised minor concerns and they have been discussed. At one point, someone tried to get a word in edge-wise and was not successful. You have a gut feeling that the team is not moving together in the conversation. You think that there might be something unspoken here - some need or concern that is left unsaid. In this case, I would call for a consensus check. Professional facilitator and coach, Jean Tabaka, offers us the "Fist of Five" method of checking consensus.[3] To do it, say something like, "Let's see where we are with this idea of moving the standup to 1pm. Let's do a consensus check. Ready? 1, 2, 3." On "3", each team member holds up a hand showing one to five fingers, to correspond with their level of agreement to the statement. Paraphrased from Jean Tabaka, here's what they mean:

Five fingers: I love this idea. I wish I had thought of it myself.

Four fingers: I'm happy with this idea and am glad we came up with it.

Three fingers: I can live with and support this idea. (This is the definition of consensus).

Two fingers: I have reservations about this and would have trouble supporting it.

One finger: I have grave misgivings. I can neither live with it nor support it.

Then, everyone looks around to see if anyone is holding up one or two fingers. If so, these are the people the team needs to hear. Because everyone "votes" from their conscience at the same time, team members are not swayed by others votes. In this way, "Fist of Five" often surfaces unheard voices and helps neutralize conversation dominators.

Consent check and consensus check are two ways to ensure that team members are invited to speak, the team is called to listen and overall understanding of one another - and with it, team positivity - increases.

Use a shared vision

When coaching business partners, activities that help surface "the dream behind the conflict" are often employed to improve the working relationship.[4] In "the dream behind the conflict", the partners are coached through an activity that recalls to mind the reasons why the partnership was a good idea in the first place. In so doing, they remember the excitement of the "dream" and regain the big picture view of the partnership's purpose. With this big picture purpose in mind, they often see that the unsolvable conflict is secondary, maybe even unimportant.

On Agile teams, we usually don't have the luxury of a voluntary relationship forged in mutual interest to fall back on in times of conflict. Teams are most often created by managers and announced to the team members with no "dream" of what the team can be together, short of delivering some product. Even so, that doesn't mean the team must remain devoid of a shared dream.

A shared dream, or vision, gives teams a beacon they can use to light the way back to their best selves and their best expression as a team when things are rocky. It is a tool to navigate unsolvable conflict. This vision is not a laundry list of the business goals the team must satisfy to be deemed successful. It is about something bigger than that: it's about them. In coaching terms, this vision is called the "Big A" Agenda.[5] It is a compelling statement that sums up what the team has set out to be together. Here are some:

"We will successfully improve the customer experience through collaboration, passion for what's right and out of the box creativity, all the while playing to each other's strengths and downplaying our weaknesses."

"In 2009, we will be focused and will hold our customers and external partners to the focus we all agree to. Our belief is that focus will improve our results and the way we work together."

"We will deliver a website that draws in new customers, and we will do so by becoming the best cross-department team the company has ever seen. We want people to ask, ‘How did they do that?'"

When unsolvable conflict arises, pointing to the vision statement hanging on the wall of the team room may be all that's needed to call the team back to their shared dream. If that doesn't work, try gently asking questions such as, "Does this vision of us as a team still apply?" "What is the meaning of your current conflict in the context of this vision?" "Having recalled the vision, does the conflict even matter?" Sometimes the conflict will fall away in sheepish looks and shared laughter. Sometimes a conversation will ensue, perhaps releasing the conflict in deference to the vision or in changing the vision. In either case, having a shared vision lets the team see that unsolvable conflict is normal and can be navigated as long as they use the vision as their beacon.

Neither one of these techniques are magical solutions. Avoiding misunderstanding through consent and consensus checks and having a vision statement don't address unsolvable conflict by themselves. It's what you do with them that matters. The "magic" happens when a consensus check or a vision statement on the wall prompt a conversation that allows the team to put the conflict in context and see that it is a small part of what they are together.

[1] From John Gottman's training course, Marital Therapy: A Research-Based Approach.

[2] Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC), a curriculum offered by the Center for Right Relationship, teaches coaches to apply John Gottman's findings in marital research to coaching teams and other groups.

[3] Jean Tabaka as adapted from Janet Danforth, Collaboration Explained, Addison-Wesley: 2006: page 80.

[4] The Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching coursework teaches an activity to deal with perpetual problems called "The Dream behind the Conflict." It is adapted from John Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Orion: 2004.

[5] Laura Whitworth, Karen Kimsey-House, Henry Kimsey-House, and Phillip Sandahl, Co-Active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and Life, Davies-Black Publishing: 2007: page 130. 

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