Using Conflict Creatively
Disagreement can breed creativity. Don’t be afraid to rise to the challenge
By Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton
We have yet to encounter a project that doesn’t involve taking a group of people through some form of change. In fact, we regard change management very much as a part of project management, not a separate activity. The end-to-end project journey usually entails building consensus about the outcomes and quality criteria, the solution, approach, budget estimates and plan as well as all the decisions along the way. This process can often cause conflict and may be viewed as something likely to derail or delay the plan, so by definition conflict on a project is perceived to be a bad thing, but is it?
Conflict can be defined as ‘a serious disagreement or protracted argument’ or ‘to be incompatible or at variance with i.e., a clash’. However, projects where everything is going smoothly and everybody is agreeing would make us very nervous. Alarm bells should ring if you find yourself surrounded by “yes people”. What are we missing? What is not being said? Is there an ‘elephant in the room’ or a ‘dead moose underneath the table’ that we can’t see?
Creating the right project culture
A good robust debate around an issue could be regarded as conflict, but it is more likely to be considered as such if we are unable to reach consensus. Conflict tends to imply a level of discomfort between the parties and an emotional attachment to the outcome, however the best project teams create a culture where ideas flow and decisions are challenged to reach the best possible solution. The culture is part of the project’s Terrain* you navigate through during its journey. Unlike the wider business, political and economic factors that can bring an external impact to your project, culture is something you can influence.
We can also learn about culture from Tuckman’s ‘Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing’ model. Following the ‘forming’ stage when the leader is providing direction and guidance, the ‘storming’ phase aptly describes the level of challenge and debate as team members seek to establish their position and build relationships within the team. While progress is being made to clarify the project purpose and roadmap, uncertainty and discomfort can be palpable, cause cliques to form, and distract the team from the bringing richness that will come in the ‘norming’ stage. Compromises can be reached but they may be mediocre compared with the breakthroughs that will come when the team has the appetite and courage to push through to ‘norming’. Sadly, it is not uncommon for teams to remain stuck in ‘storming’ for the duration of their project.
As project managers we sometimes need to mix things up a bit to create a level of conflict to enable an issue to surface and for the team to progress into ‘norming’. For example, if we are struggling to get engagement, we may offer up a contentious ‘strawman’ because we know it provokes greater debate.
Conflict can range from a contentious suggestion, through a robust discussion to outright confrontation. The first two of these are healthy project behaviours and, in a well-formed team, even confrontation can be valid on a project in order to unblock an issue. However, the very word confrontation is emotive. Using the word challenge instead moves the discussion to an exploration of ideas rather than a debate between two immovable objects with a winner and a loser at the end.
In our experience conflict is a healthy part of creating the best solutions for a project, but it needs to be utilised intentionally and underpinned by relationships that revel in the intellectual exploration of ideas. Part of the role of the project leader is to create the ‘safe space’ or ‘project dojo’ where the rules of engagement allow the team to interact creatively, positively, possibly out of their comfort zone, but safely.
We need to be aware that different people are comfortable with differing levels of debate. It is OK to express conflicting views, but always be aware of the impact the conflict is having on the team as a whole. As the project manager you need to create the environment to promote debate whilst containing any conflict and ensuring that it is not seen as personal.
While storms and forest fires are uncomfortable, they are nature’s way of making way for new growth. Conflict on a project can be like a cleansing storm – it is sometimes necessary to be able to move forward but it should always be used intentionally and not as an emotional response.
In short, encourage healthy conflict, facilitate positive challenges and don’t be afraid to seek a project culture that actively welcomes regular and passionate constructive debate.
*Terrain is one of the 5T’s of the ExtraordinaryPM Framework.
The Terrain is the landscape and business context of your project’s journey. We train our Extraordinary PMs to plan each project like a runner plans a marathon.
On our Mastery Programme, we help you to consider where the tough, sticky or uphill stretches could be, what risks you might face, where you’re most likely to need refreshment or rejuvenation and how to deal with both expected and unexpected events that will crop up along the way.
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