Nov 2, 2012

Do you feel like you are constantly butting heads with others? Are you dreading going to the next meeting because you know there will be arguments and tension in the room? Are you afraid to or avoid taking on new assignments because you know that there is no way to please everyone? Conflict can be intimidating, there’s no doubt. But conflict can also be a powerful, positive tool.

Through conflict we have the exchange of ideas and innovation. The trick is to keep the conflict healthy rather than destructive. The following are four things that you can do to keep the conflict healthy and contributing rather than destructive.

1. Know your Stakeholders

When we take the time to discover and understand all of the stakeholders involved in or impacted by what we are doing we can often avoid conflict. I have found in the past that it is the sleeper stakeholder, the one you don’t know about – or the one that you underestimate – that results in conflict.

Doing a thorough analysis of all of the stakeholders up-front and learning what their concerns and wants are can allow you to avoid unwanted conflict. When conflict can’t be avoided, consider that at least you are now communicating and working through it, hopefully before the conflict grows.

2. Triple Constraints

You may have heard the expression that you can achieve schedule, budget or scope but never all three. These are the triple constraints and they interact as we make decisions. As we work through conflicts pressure is placed on these three things.

If we are running behind on a project, we feel the pressure to work overtime or bring additional people on to get us back on track. However, doing this will put us over budget. Alternatively we could reduce the features of what we are building but that would be a change to the scope. In each one of these decisions pressure is being applied to one or more of the constraints.

More importantly, each stakeholder is going value one of these constraints more than the others.

Accounting is going to demand that the budget not change. The client may demand that the features are not adjusted; and the Department Manager may be concerned that it is delivered on time. Every decision or compromise will result in changes to one or more of these constraints: that can’t be avoided.

However, we can create a framework in advance to allow us to make a decision that works for the group, project or organization. If, at the beginning of the project or discussions, you decide which of the constraints is most important to all of the stakeholders then you will have a framework for making decisions as you move forward.

All the stakeholders are involved in establishing the framework, and you communicate the results clearly to everyone.

3. Agile methods

The third method for coping with conflict is to use agile work methods. A great deal of conflict arises as we continue to try to use our old existing methods of performing a task when things may have changed in our environment.

The fast rate of change in our environments means that there are more opportunities for conflict to arise. Adopting agile work methods allows us to continuously adjust to the changing environment.

When we use the agile methods regularly, our people become more accustom to change as well and are more open to new approaches. This all leads to few or smaller conflicts as we navigate together through the changing environment.

4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

If you stop and analyze the conflicts that you have had at work or at home, most conflicts occur because of communication. Either someone wasn’t kept up to speed or they didn’t understand what was being said (and its implications).

We can do a great job of analyzing the Stakeholders but if we don’t use that knowledge to communicate with them and the group it was a waste of time.

People don’t like to be ignored; communicating is way of saying that you hear them, you understand them and you value them. When you can’t provide them with exactly what they want, communicate what is going on and you can usually soften their response or find ways to compromise to prevent destructive conflict.

Rapid Recap:

The world is in a constant state of change today. This naturally leads to more pressure and conflicts. Instead of avoiding conflicts, because eventually they catch up with us, it is better to develop strategies for turning them into something positive. Through the exchange of ideas (sometimes heated), innovation occurs.

Another way of looking at this is: if you don’t turn on the heat, you’ll never cook the meal. Sometimes heat – conflict, that is – is necessary to move things forward.

By knowing our stakeholders, creating agility in our organization to allow for rapid adoption, recognizing there are constraints to what we can do and communicating constantly and openly we can avoid destructive conflicts, and optimize constructive tensions.