Let’s set the scene. You’ve started as a Scrum Master in a new team. It’s your first day, and it seems to be going well. You’ve joined the daily Scrum and there’s an air of unease. Uh-oh! The work seems to be flowing, but no one is speaking to each other. Why?
Let’s go back a few steps…
It’s not likely the team set out to start an argument or that they don’t like engaging with each other. But, as Patrick Lencioni says in his book “silos, politics and turf wars”, this happens not through intent but naturally over time through a lack of positive action to build space for healthy conflict. How did teams get to this stage in the first place though?
Well, we’re all human. We don’t want to be the person who starts the argument, or the one to resolve it. That ticket which a colleague has said they’ll resolve for the last two days? We could bring it up, or just hope and wait that they do. And for all the time we don’t, the business doesn’t see value. But we don’t want to offend them, so we opt for artificial harmony.
It may be that on the outside we appear respectful but really, we’re frustrated and perhaps distrustful. If, as a facilitator, we don’t deal with this, we run the risk of it spreading. And, in the spirit of conflict avoidance, the team will stop pushing themselves to better things. We want them to have healthy conflict but avoid all-out war.
Given the challenge, here’s an exercise you can run with your teams to help them achieve a level of healthy conflict, supporting better outcomes:
- Define what you mean by “conflict”. – Productive conflict allows teams to remain focused and encourages debate. Destructive conflict uses personal attacks and mean-spirited comments.
- Ask the team where engaging in conflict could get better results. – Conversely, challenge them to think of when the team might value artificial harmony over honest debate.
- Get the team to rate their trust levels with each other. – If it’s low, start here, and focus on building trust instead, as teams who don’t trust each other can’t have honest debates.
- When they’re ready, ask them to choose a topic which would benefit from conflict. – Lay the ground rules (no personal attacks, all opinions are valid).
- As they start to talk, search for conflict. – In that, if someone disagrees, aim to draw them out and bring their full thoughts to the table. Remind the team healthy conflict helps them become stronger.
- Commit to staying with the issue until it’s resolved, or the team have a clear path forward.
- De-brief the team and guide them on how welcoming conflict helps them build a competitive advantage.
- Rinse and repeat, running the exercise each time, and you’ll see artificial harmony arising.
Soon, the team will start to think about how conflict can be a good thing, achieving a ‘happy medium’ where competitive advantage is increased by breaking through boundaries and setting higher performance aims. By using an exercise such as the above, you can support them in doing this without reverting to old ways.