How I Learnt to Value Conflict

When some Project Managers think about conflict, they think about how disruptive conflict can be and the detrimental effect it can have on the project. What if conflict could be used to assist the team to become more effective?

Whilst conflict is about one or more team members telling/demonstrating to you that things aren’t right within the team, it is possible to see such conflict in a positive light. Take time to understand the source of the conflict. Without understanding the why of conflict you might end up mitigating the wrong issue. While I value the opportunity that conflict brings, I believe that conflict left unresolved can be a serious issue for team harmony and ultimately team performance. One method I have found works well for identifying issues is to ask people in person what is going on. Depending upon the team, you could discuss this in a team setting, with smaller groups, or individually. You will need to judge the best mechanism for getting to the root cause of the conflict.

Once the root cause has been identified, it is time to renovate the team and in doing so, make the team more efficient and effective. For example, if the conflict is about clarity of roles within the team, then an approach might be to work as a team to develop clear role statements for each member of the team. This task is best undertaken by the team in a group setting so that all members of the team can be contribute and have ownership of the agreed outcomes.

Changing team dynamics is the key to resolving the conflict. While this change is important, you must ensure that the team vision/goal is always about delivering the project outcomes that have been agreed with customer. In your role as leader it is important to have clear vision about the purpose and goals of the team. You will need to be able to communicate this vision to the team in clear, simple language.

There is a lot of scope to refine the team’s functionality to ensure that the required outcomes are achieved. Setting the challenge to the team to work together more effectively should see improvements in team functioning and achieve team member buy-in.

Remember, though, in a team setting it can be difficult to get the quietest person in the room to contribute to the discussion. As a leader it is important to directly ask them open questions about what they think about the proposed changes and what thoughts they have on how the team can improve.

Unfortunately, some individuals will view this exercise as a waste of time and use their negativity to de-rail the process. This is situation is difficult to manage and can take up a significant amount of time to resolve. My experience is if there is a single person still resisting the change, the rest of team will coerce this person into working in the new style.

Once the new approach has been agreed by the team, it is now time to bring it to life. Instead of undertaking a large change it is more effective to implement small changes. In conjunction with the team, develop an implementation plan – it doesn’t need to be a large formal document, rather a brief outline with the what, how and when of the proposed changes.

The team meeting is a great place to discuss the what and how of the new way of working. One critical thing to be established is determining how effective these changes have been. How will the team know if this has been successful or not? By having simple evaluation criteria, all members of the team will be able to evaluate whether the change has been successful or not.

Concentrate on the next 3-4 weeks of project activity – how can the proposed change be incorporated into the activities that are to be undertaken in this timeframe?

One critical activity of the team is reviewing the progress of the implementation. By including a review item in the team meeting agenda, and perhaps a forum topic in the PPPM tool, we ensure that the initiative continues to receive the attention it needs without diverting attention away from the real focus of the team – which is to deliver the project.

If the change is not delivering the required results, then refine the change and re-implement. Keep refining the process until it works. Whilst unlikely to happen first time, the important thing to remember is to keep refining until the results are achieved.

Conflict is your team’s way of telling you that things are not right. You can listen and work together to improve the situation or you can hide your head in the sand, hoping that it will all blow over. Determining the impetus for change is never easy and changing for change’s sake is never the way to go. That is why conflict in your team is valuable and can be used to make the team smarter, stronger and more effective. Embrace conflict and grow as a leader.

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