Conflict in the Workplace within Scrum

‘Conflict in the Workplace’ within Scrum is as much about the Scrum Master’s Management style as it is about Conflicts. These conflicts occur between Scrum Team members (Scrum Master, Product Owner – the Voice of the Customer, and the Development Team). This is where a good Scrum Master comes into their own. However, we are not going to discuss the Management styles of these “Servant-Leaders ” here. We will rather look at a few Conflict Management Techniques that can be applied when necessary. When individuals are Working in a small Team with tight deadlines, it is natural for stress to mount. As Stress levels increase tempers may flare. While some Teams get on well together from Day 1, this is very much the luck of the draw. Managing Conflict in the Workplace is very much the Scrum Master’s responsibility. There are four possible outcomes from any intervention, but only one is successful and beneficial to the Scrum.

Conflict in the Workplace: When do Conflicts Arise?

Among the Risks of a Scrum Project is the requirement for a small group of people with different skills. The team Work closely with each other at high Velocity for a substantial length of time. This can increase the likelihood of conflicts between team members. While some of the Scrum Team might know each other, some might be complete strangers. Bruce Tuckman explained the Lifecycle of a Team from a Psychological Perspective. His studies were based upon naval Teams in the United States throughout the 1960s. He noted how Teams go through Four Stages of Maturity to evolve into a High-Functioning Team. While Conflict can occur at any point, the first two stages are the most likely to stimulate Conflicts and disturbances.

Bruce Tuckman Stages

The stages are:-.

‘Forming’ – Where the Team is Initiated. Each member sees themselves as an individual. There is little understanding of, or bonding with, the other Team members. There is a natural reserve between members. They are busy trying to evaluate their Team mates’ capabilities and dispositions. There is usually only limited Conflict at this Stage; Team members are too busy trying to size each other up.

‘Storming’ – This is the rocky stage. The Team members have learnt a bit about their counterparts. They are trying to discover their own position in the Team. This is where Conflicts begin. Conflicts can persist throughout some Projects where people with strong personalities and equally strong opinions do not see eye-to-eye.

‘Norming’ – This is the stage where the Team should be working as a Team. This does not mean that there will be no Conflicts. Conflict may occur, especially when approaching the release date, or if there is some problem with Acceptance Criteria.

‘Performing’ – This is where you have a high-performing Team, and they should be capable of sorting out their own clashes. Not every scrum reaches this Nirvana, however.

Conflict in the Workplace: Conflict Techniques:-.

-‘Win-Win’, where the issues are solved and everyone moves on.
-‘Lose-Win’, where some Team members will stop getting involved because they wish to prevent Conflict.
-‘Lose-Lose’, where a good deal of time and trouble is invested into making everybody happy. This comes at an expense to the effective Project outcome.
-‘ Win-Lose’ – the inverse of ‘Lose-Win’, where some Team members become dominant and even autocratic.

One does not have to be a Rocket Scientist to know that “Win-Win” is the desired outcome. The other techniques are compromises. We are not saying the analysis is not valid, but it does not really give tips on how to resolve the Conflicts, rather why they occurred. The Scrum Framework is uniquely fit to Managing Conflict in the Workplace. All the Tools for conflict management are built in to the Processes and Meetings, or Ceremonies.

Tool no 1: The Common Vision.

The Visioning at the start of the Project is vital; it aligns everyone towards the Delivery of a successful Project. Where a Conflict arises, it can be discussed with reference to the Project Vision. Any point of view that diverges from the Vision does not benefit the Project. However by utilizing the original intent as the focus, it depersonalises any Conflict. There may be some “Win-Lose” or “Lose-Win” in getting to “Win-Win”, but consensus will be reached.

Tool no 2: The Agile Manifesto.

Again, the Agile Principles and Values of the Manifesto define how the Work should be Done. Reminding the Team about the Values to be upheld is a non-confrontational way to redirect everyone back to what they need to be doing. That is, producing a Valuable Product.

Tool no 3: The Daily Standup Meeting.

The Daily Standup Meeting is the Scrum Master’s barometer of Team Collaboration. It is important that each Team member takes part actively – if some Team members are reticent, there may be a “Lose-Win” scenario occurring.

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Tool no 4: Committing to the Sprint Backlog.

This is an extremely powerful instrument where everybody commits to the Sprint Backlog during the Sprint Planning Meeting. This commitment is where User Stories are selected from the Product Backlog for inclusion in the Sprint Backlog. If a Conflict emerges, it should be dealt with as quickly as possible. Until this is Done, the commitment to the Sprint and the Scrum Project is in jeopardy. The Scrum Master must try and resolve issues as soon as possible and after that ask the entire Team to revisit the commitment they made. Once again, the focus is on the Project and effective outcomes. They can remind the team of the Minimum Viable Product that they are working towards.

Tool no 5: Planning Poker.

Games such as Planning Poker can be utilized to Estimate the complexity of User Stories, and, while it is not directly a Conflict Management Tool, it creates a Culture of Negotiation in the Team, as mutual agreement is reached following discussion amongst the Team.

Tool no 6: The Retrospective.

The Retrospective is an essential stake in the ground for Managing Conflict. While it takes a great deal of skill to Manage a Retrospective objectively without finger pointing and casting of stones, it rearranges the Team for the next Sprint. Certainly, anything that did not go well is a point of Conflict, however Working through it and understanding how to prevent or overcome it in the future helps the Team Mature and Work together.

Conflict in the Workplace: Dispute is Good, Don’t Deflect it.

There are other elements of Scrum that encourage Teamwork and reduce Conflict, however even the few pointed out above can help bring fast and objective resolutions to many conflicts. It is essential that the Conflicts are aired and Managed as they happen, and not allowed to fester.

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We found these books great for finding out more information on Agile Scrum:

It is a Fact of Life that sometimes a Team member will be so disruptive that they might need to be replaced. A skilled Scrum Master should be able to Develop a harmonious Team just by ensuring that good Scrum practice is always observed.

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