Article of the week 28 – 2023

Addressing conflicts in agile teams

Introduction: Agile management and agile teams 

Agile management can be understood as an umbrella term for methods, models and tools that improve the responsiveness and adaptability of systems. This focus on complexity capability does not replace the previous efficiency and performance thinking but describes additional necessary capabilities.

Many positive things are attributed to agile collaboration based on these principles: Task orientation to customer needs, fast learning curves, culture of trust, innovative power and much more. It is assumed that teams that get along well also perform better. 

For example, personal sensitivities of team members are regularly queried in check-ins before the start of work meetings in order to identify disruptions in the ability to work.

Questions like „What was I happy about this morning?“ or „How am I feeling right now?“ are used to make tensions transparent and open up a trusting space. 

Nevertheless, there will always be system-immanent areas of tension in companies due to scarce resources (time, qualification, money) or target dilemmas such as cost savings versus investment needs, which cannot be eliminated by agile organizational forms.

Conflicts in agile management 

Conflicts in agile management have a special conflict dynamic because they are not resolved hierarchically. In addition, old hierarchical and new systems often exist in parallel, leading to increased uncertainty. 

Traditionally, team members delegated conflict resolution to managers to solve problems vicariously. In agile management, product owners and scrum masters no longer accept escalations. At best, they moderate clarification. There is no longer a hierarchy that puts its foot down to make decisions.

Often, the authority and boundaries for enforcing technical task responsibility are not clearly defined in the role descriptions of the Product Owner or Scrum Master. As projects change, the roles of the role owners may also change. There is no clear assignment of power that is tied to individuals in the long term.

In this area of tension, it is a particular challenge to discuss technical goal conflicts appropriately and not to personalize them. 

The retrospective – resolving conflicts in agile management
How can conflicts in this form of work organization be resolved without endangering the autonomy of the teams and nipping the possible potential of self-organization in the bud? 

The focus here is on the role of the Scrum Master: she/he ensures that the work process runs smoothly, promotes and optimizes collaboration, and removes obstacles in and around the team.

A recurring ritual moderated by the Scrum Master to uncover obstacles and tensions in the collaboration is the retrospective. In this forum, all team members are encouraged to speak with courage and openness about uncomfortable issues in the collaboration process. „The basic principle of a retrospective can be described as follows: Regardless of what is identified as needing improvement, the basic attitude is that everyone did their best, taking into account timing, skills and competencies, available resources, and the situation.

The goal is to highlight the positive aspects of the team and constantly look for opportunities to improve. By default, a retrospective is conducted along the following questions:
– What did we do so well that we need to talk about it so we don’t forget?
– What did we learn?
– What do we need to do differently in the future?
– What have we not yet understood?

In the context of retrospectives, (team) mediation could be a low-threshold internal conflict management offering for the Scrum Master(s).

Intrapersonal conflicts could be clarified in this way, structural conflicts of agile management could be uncovered and repetitive conflict patterns could be identified. 

A learning process in the team, between teams and in the company would be triggered in a method-based manner. 

In particular, the following mediation principles seem to me to be suitable for addressing current difficulties in retrospectives from the role of the Scrum Master clearly, from different perspectives and in a solution-oriented manner:
– Perspective of humanistic psychology: people basically do not want to harm other people, they act on their own responsibility and have freedom of choice. Respect and appreciation leads to felt recognition and acceptance and thus strengthens the personality of the other person(s).

– Categorization of the type of conflict for systematic clarification: Is it a role and/or resource conflict? Is it a personality and/or relationship conflict, a communication and/or structural conflict, etc.?

– In clarifying the conflict in conversation with the parties, the basic attitude of mediation:

  •  Impartiality: be an attentive listener and actor for all parties. 
  •  Acceptance: accepting the person without judging. 
  • Acknowledgement: appreciating the mediation efforts of the disputants.
  • Affirmation: affirming positive basic attitudes and approaches. 

– An orientation to the phase sequence in the clarification meeting: 

  • Preparation phase (for retrospective) with preliminary discussions and accompanying observation of team dynamics. 
  • Collection of topics during the retrospective.
  • Moderation of the structured presentation of the conflict by the respective conflict party with the aim of reducing complexity.
  • Clarification with change of perspective and active listening (plugging communication holes).
  • Agreement on measures and implementation plan (who-what-when-with whom).

My Tip:

Be patient and bring expertise to the team to introduce agile management tools. 

Use the thought models of humanistic psychology, e.g. of Viktor Frankl, Martin Buber or Marshal Rosenberg, as a guide for your employees.

Stay realistic, however, because the rules of growth capitalism and short-term profitability usually remain the defining paradigms in corporate leadership. 

Therefore, pay special attention to cold conflict when using agile settings: Cynicism or passive resistance to agile management tools can hinder professional agreements.

Train scrum masters and managers as mediators. This will better identify areas of tension and bring up the resulting conflicts in a structured way. He (or she) will find ways in agile collaboration to make interpersonal disputes in everyday work understandable for the conflicting parties. She/he will be able to critically reflect on agile work forms and thus be at peace with herself/himself. 

  • She/he will use the attitude of mediation to open up options for people in agile teams, to move conflicts and to help people discover possibilities for change.

Sebastian Schmidt – Senior Consultant


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