Conflict management in Agile Teams

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My first professional management role was three years out of college. I was a young engineer in an privately owned electronics manufacturing company. The owner needed a change, fired the long-time president and brought in a “fixer.” One of the fixer’s first acts was to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse — “I want you to be the manager of a troubled engineering team of 12 engineers.” I was excited and very scared. This team had been together for several years and while not high performing was a nice group of people whose families socialized outside of work and got along without conflict in the office.

The week after I took charge the sprinkler lines above our cube are froze and burst, sending us into a frenzy to rescue expensive Silicon Graphics workstations and other personal effects. While repairs were made the team was crowded into a large conference room for about three weeks. Boy, was that a learning experience for all of us.

Every morning Terri (not her real name) would open her rolling file and get her stuff, go to the kitchenette, make maple & brown sugar oatmeal in a ceramic bowl, bring it back to her desk, and eat it with a metal spoon (making clanking sounds against the bowl). Personal habits that are not usually an issue when people have their own space become major problems in a closed environment. The overpowering odor of maple syrup in the conference room was accompanied by the modern jazz percussion of spoon on bowl (not available on iTunes). It started driving people crazy. One morning the appointed team spokesperson came into my office, shut the door, and proceeded to tell me about the plans that the team had to take her oatmeal and spoon from her rolling file and hide them until they were out of the cramped space.

I put on my cape and tights and flew off to save my team. <insert Superman theme song here>

I had a uncomfortable conversation with Terri, a woman 20 years my senior, in my office to explain the problem. She was taken aback that the folks with whom she had worked for years didn’t respect her enough to talk with her about it, and instead decided to go over their heads. The oatmeal eating stopped. There was tenseness in the room from then on, and after they moved back. Terri remained part of the team but she personally disengaged a bit from the other folks.

In looking back I realize that I had made a mistake by treating Terri’s oatmeal annoyance as an impediment to the team and taking it upon myself as the leader to fix it.  As leaders, our tendency is to treat conflict as just another impediment — something that needs to be dealt with and fixed now. Although team conflict can be distracting, it’s far too complicated and important to be “managed away” like other impediments.  While conflict is not good, it does have a silver lining. Conflict handled correctly can be a rich source for valuable lessons for the team and for the individuals. Managing team conflict almost always challenges people’s beliefs, feelings, and perceptions. It’s hard for people to grow as individuals or as a team without healthy retrospection on how we tick and how we work with others.

I cheated my team from learning these lessons by “taking care of it” and, while it was because of my lack of experience, I still regret the impact that I had on the relationships of the people working for me.

Remember that conflict is not a typical fire to fight as a leader. No anonymous complaints.  Insist that the whole team be part of solution. Use your sprint retrospectives as a forum for open introspection and team building. As your team matures you can go beyond retrospectives and incorporate introspective concepts into team rhythms.