Managing Conflict in Agile Teams

I recently saw a LinkedIn post from someone who was requesting advice on managing conflict in 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.

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