Tag Archives: Agile Teams

Managing Conflict in Agile Teams – Is Conflict Normal?

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.
Managing Conflict in Agile Teams

How Do You Manage Conflict in Agile Teams?

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.

Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development

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

The first stage is called “Forming”. In this stage, “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

The next stage is called “Storming”. During this stage, “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

The final stage is called “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.”

There are several 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”

Overall Summary

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.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Emotional Intelligence in Agile – Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important?

The role of emotional intelligence in Agile is important to understand. It is a skill that is very difficult to master for many people.

Emotional Intelligence in Agile

What is Emotional Intelligence?

HelpGuide.org defines “emotional intelligence as follows:

“Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to identify, use, understand, and manage emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict. Emotional intelligence impacts many different aspects of your daily life, such as the way you behave and the way you interact with others.”

Why is that so important in an Agile environment? It’s important because:

  • Agile relies so heavily on teamwork and open, honest, and
  • Transparent communication both within the team and with other stakeholders outside of the team.

Key Attributes Associated with Emotional Intelligence

HelpGuide.org goes on to define four key attributes associated with “emotional intelligence”:

CharacteristicDescription
Self-AwarenessYou recognize your own emotions and how they affect your thoughts and behavior, know your strengths and weaknesses, and have self-confidence
Self-ManagementYou’re able to control impulsive feelings and behaviors, manage your emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances
Social AwarenessYou can understand the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people, pick up on emotional cues, feel comfortable socially, and recognize the power dynamics in a group or organization
Relationship ManagementYou know how to develop and maintain good relationships, communicate clearly, inspire and influence others, work well in a team, and manage conflict

Source: www.helpguide.org/mental/eq5_raising_emotional_intelligence.htm

The easiest way to see how this impacts the performance of Agile teams is to observe the behavior of someone who has a low level of emotional intelligence. Here is an example:

  • On an Agile team I’ve worked with, there was one particular individual who was very bright and intelligent but
  • He had a very strong and dominating personality and what I would consider a low level of emotional intelligence.

Here are some characteristics I saw – He:

  • Liked to be in control of everything. He wanted to be seen as the “hero” who is leading the entire effort. There was a saying on the team that if it’s not XX’s idea, it sucks
  • Was opinionated and confrontational, didn’t value other people’s perspective, and attacked other people openly in emails
  • Had a strong vested interest in his own ideas and proving himself “right”. He lost objectivity and wasn’t able to see different sides of a decision

Impact on an Agile Team

How does that impact the effectiveness of an Agile team?

  • It can stifle the contribution of others on the team. It’s well known that more minds can work better than one and the performance of a team is maximized when everyone on the team is fully engaged and actively contributing to decisions and the work of the team.
  • It can lead to poor decisions. Decisions may be biased in favor of one person’s point of view and may not objectively consider all aspects of the problem

Here’s some excellent additional reading on this subject:

http://www.helpguide.org/mental/eq5_raising_emotional_intelligence.htm

How Do You Acquire Emotional Intelligence?

I believe that the first and most important step is self-awareness. You have to be somewhat introspective and be able to look at yourself openly and honestly and also learn to be comfortable being open and transparent with others.

  • That doesn’t come naturally to all people and requires a certain amount of self-confidence to develop. Many people have a “shell” that they operate within and that “shell” can be either thick or thin.
  • There’s a concept that I learned a long time ago called the “Johari Window” that is still valid today.

The Johari Window

The Johari Window is a tool that is used to analyze someone’s level of self-awareness. It breaks up people’s self awareness into four quadrants:

AreaDescription
Open/Free AreaPersonality attributes and characteristics that are known to yourself and to others
Blind AreaPersonality attributes and characteristics that are known to others but not by yourself
Hidden AreaPersonality attributes and characteristics that are known by yourself but not by others
Unknown AreaPersonality attributes and characteristics that you are not fully aware of and others are also not aware of

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window

Alan Chapman has created a very nice diagram that shows the relationship of these four quadrants:

Johari Window Model

Source: http://www.businessballs.com/johariwindowmodeldiagram.pdf

Key Points

The key points are:

  • People who have a high level of self-awareness and who are also open and transparent in their behavior with others:
    • Have a relatively large quadrant one (Open/Free Area)
    • The other quadrants are relatively small
  • The objective of increasing your self-awareness, openness, and transparency is to:
    • Increase the size of quadrant one (Open/Free Area)
    • Relative to the size of the “Blind” and “Hidden” quadrants.
  • Another objective is to more fully develop your true potential through self-discovery of skills, attributes, and characteristics in the “Unknown” area that neither you or others you interact with are fully aware of.

How Do You Develop Self Awareness?

Years ago, I can remember many companies made self-awareness training a key part of their management development curriculum for new managers:

  • The principle behind that was that you couldn’t be very effective as a manager if you had a hidden personal agenda and
  • You weren’t open and transparent in your relationships with other people
  • Your employees will recognize the external veneer that you put on, see right through it, and lose respect for you

Unfortunately, over the years, many companies have cut back on that kind of training.

  • It was perceived as too “touchy-feely” and when times got tough, it was one of the first things that got cut because it was not seen to have a direct contribution to company profitability.
  • The relationship to company profitability may be indirect, but I think it is just as essential today for managers and even more important for people participating in Agile teams.

There are some exercises that can be done with Agile teams to develop higher levels of self awareness. For example, here’s a Johari Window self-assessment tool:

http://kevan.org/johari

Overall Summary

Emotional Intelligence is important in an Agile environment.

  • It is essential for creating an environment of trust where people feel comfortable with being open and honest with others in a small group
  • Once people have become comfortable with doing that in a small group, they can then take more risks and practice the same behavior outside of that small protected group environment
  • Self-awareness is a very important skill for achieving emotional intelligence. You must be able to see yourself openly and honestly in order to improve

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Overcoming Misconceptions About Agile Teams

There are a lot of misconceptions about Agile teams. There is no doubt that “Agile is a team sport”, but have you really thought about lessons learned from team sports that can be applied to Agile teams?

Many people have the view that an ideal Agile team is a team of peers where there is no specialization among people on the team, everyone on the team is capable of performing any role, and everyone on the team is also responsible for everything. That’s a very idealistic view and may not be the best way for Agile teams to work. For example:

Level of Developers

Is it inconsistent with Agile for a more senior-level Tech Lead to provide direction to other more junior-level developers?

  • My experience in the real world is that you don’t often find teams who are all peers and it may not be practical or cost-effective for a company to staff a development team with all senior-level people who are all self-sufficient.
  • The key thing is that you can have people at multiple levels of proficiency on a team without creating a formalized hierarchical structure that inhibits individual productivity and initiative.

Teamwork and Specialization

Is it inconsistent with Agile for individual people on the team to have defined roles like QA testing and does that limit the ability of the team to be cohesive? Think of a football team – each player has a role that he specializes in and is good at that role. A football team probably wouldn’t be very good if there was no specialization and everyone did a little of everything.

  • The center might be a 300 pound gorilla and might be very good at blocking and tackling, but he may not be very good at throwing touchdown passes.
  • Imagine the 180 pound quarterback attempting to play on the front line and blocking and imagine the 300+ pound center attempting to play the role of the nimble quarterback throwing passes.
  • Specialization on a team doesn’t preclude developing high-performance teams with very cohesive teamwork.
  • Having someone on a team who is skilled in QA testing and is specialized in playing that role is a lot different than having a separate QA group outside of the development team who specializes in QA testing.

Defined Individual Roles

Some people seem to think that having well-defined individual roles and accountability is inconsistent with having overall team accountability – shouldn’t everyone on the team be responsible for everything?

  • Think of a football team again – everyone on the team, as a whole, is responsible for winning; but what if everyone on the team just ran around without defined roles that they were responsible for and without defined plays trying to figure out what to do to get the ball across the finish line?
  • It wouldn’t be very likely to be a very high-performance winning team. Teams where “everyone is responsible for everything” and there is no individual accountability for anything are not likely to be very effective.