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  • Breaking the Wall of Misunderstanding between Agile Team Members

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    Both the strengths and the vulnerability of agile teams stem from the constant tight interaction between team members. Disharmony and conflict may happen even within the high-performing teams because they consist of people with different, often clashing personalities, mindsets and behavioral patterns. These things one can hardly change. Therefore, the hard truth is that some conflicts are unsolvable. It does not mean, however, that they are doomed to be destructive and cannot be navigated. Here are some key points that managers and team members should keep in mind.


    Why conflicts arise

    The first thing you should accept is that Agile inherently is conflict. Collaboration is impossible without conflict. People disagree about methodology, tools, or even about having or not having an issue they disagree about in the first place. The more people are on the team, the harder it is to find consensus. Transparency, which is a cornerstone of Agile, also means conflict, because problems surface all the time. This, however, is a good thing, because the can be discussed immediately before they become insurmountable.


    Causes of misunderstanding are infinitely variable, but they cluster into major sources:

    • Disagreement about strategy and team goals – I don’t think we are moving in the right direction!
    • Lack of knowledge of agile principles and values – Let me finish this processes chart first!
    • Lack of team responsibility, blame culture – It’s their fault we’ve missed the deadline!
    • Misunderstanding of responsibilities – Do I have to do it as well?
    • Interdependence – I can’t even start until they do it!
    • Broken feedback – Why didn’t they tell me they did not even need that done?
    • Poor planning – This had to be done yesterday!
    • Misunderstanding of business needs - What is this and why do we even research it? (that was a huge issue when we needed to integrate a form for reviews of – a website I helped to analyze and suggest improvements)
    • Fear of failure – I’d better keep quiet about that mess-up, maybe they won’t notice.
    • Competing goals – He can wait, and I need that done ASAP!
    • Self-centered attitude – What’s in it for me?
    • Inadequate appraisal system that measures individual performance – I have done my part of the job!


    One of the best ways to minimize conflict is to address regularly the issues that can cause it. This is how you can do it.


    What can you do to prevent conflict?


    “First of Five” technique

    This is seemingly simple but very effective way to prevent miscommunication and grudge. It is a voting technique offered by Agile community influencer and coach, Jean Tabaka. The technique consists of three main stages:

    • Check-in
    • Gaining consensus
    • Moving forward


    The major goal of such check-ins it to ensure that everyone is heard and the team is moving towards a shared conclusion or decision that anyone can back. This technique is brilliant in surfacing the unheard voices and removing dominators from a discussion in favor of those who need to speak out. This is how it’s done.


    After discussing an idea, before carrying out a decision, you do a quick consensus check by asking everyone to vote. They vote by holding up a hand with 1 to 5 fingers raised.

    • Five – The idea is brilliant and I love it!
    • Four – I am happy with this idea.
    • Three – I can live with the idea and I support it (the minimum required sign of consent).
    • Two – I have some reservations, and I’d have trouble supporting the idea.
    • One – I cannot support the idea and I am against it.


    Then everyone looks around, and if there are people holding up one or two fingers, they are the ones the team needs to hear. This way everyone is invited to speak up. This simple technique reinforces understanding between team members and increases positivity.


    Shared vision

    Whether you are building a website, creating a product or starting a company, creating a shared vision is very important. In order to work, this shared vision should be a shared dream, a big purpose into which every member emotionally invests. Create this picture in several words that will ignite enthusiasm. This must be a compelling statement, describing why the team has got together and where it is heading. Here are a few examples:


    • “We will create a website that will convert customers and we’ll become the best team in the company’s history!”
    • “By 2020 everyone in the world will know our product and everyone will ask themselves ‘How did they do that?’”
    • “This year we will improve customer experience and the way we work together through collaboration and passion!”


    Then, when conflict arises, put it in the context of the vision. Sometimes, in the light of this shared values, the conflict simply goes away, because it does not even matter. Sometimes, the vision puts conflict into a perspective and becomes a beacon, which helps to navigate the conflict and approach it in a more constructive way.


    Navigating conflict throughout the stages

    As I have mentioned above, it is normal, even necessary for a conflict to manifest itself in Agile teams. Misunderstanding building up and seething under the surface create impediments to work of any team, but even more so of an Agile team.   


    However, it is critical to keep it within the boundaries of constructive and optimistic discussion. Following the classification by Speed Leas, that would be keeping the conflict on the level 1 – a Problem to Solve. Overall, there are five stages, and it is important to recognize each of them on the go.


    Problem to Solve

    Even high performing teams regularly go through this level of conflict. The participants have different opinions, however, they work together to eliminate misunderstanding. The communication is focused on the present facts and members collaborate, even if feeling certain awkwardness. “This isn’t working, how about that?”


    What to do: seek a win-win situation, a solution that everyone will agree with. To avoid misunderstanding, use regular consent and consensus check-ups.



    People become wary about their position in the conflict and where it will leave them. They tend to withhold their opinion about the issues, and move to describe general things rather than specifics. “Here we go again!”


    What to do: create the sense of safety and togetherness. Empower team members with collaboration games and remind them of their shared values.



    This is where people start taking sides and winning supporters. The major problem is distorted, issues cluster together, and sides tend to overgeneralize and magnify them and blame each other: “You never listen!” It is important to avoid escalation to this stage. Usually, agile teams have a “we all in this together” feeling, no matter how challenging the situation is, so the contest is poisonous and disruptive in nature.


    What to do: re-evaluate the magnitude of the issue, stick to the facts. Accommodate, if the relationship is more important than the problem that threatens them. Alternatively, negotiate, it the problem revolves around the divisible shared resource.



    Instead of winning the argument, sides want to get rid of each other, because they see the “other side” as a source of the problem. “Either you leave or I leave!”


    What to do: de-escalate the conflict; avoid open confrontation by carrying thoughts from one group to the other.


    Intractable situation

    To put it simply, the state of war. Conflict is unmanageable, people focus on personalities instead of issues, emotions overwhelm facts, words and actions get ugly. Sides aim to eliminate each other.


    What to do: anything to prevent people from hurting each other.


    Final thoughts

    In all their complexity, relationships in agile teams can be very intimate. Therefore, as suggests Lyssa Adkins, coach and manager with years of experience, the conflicts and misunderstandings that arise between team members aren’t unlike those between spouses.


    Just as in marriage, the conflict stemming from the difference in the mindsets is persistent and manifests itself in various forms in different situations. It cannot be finitely resolved. However, it does not mean, that there is no way out. There are two things about such persistent conflicts, that you, as a manager, or a team member, should keep in mind.


    Instead of conflict resolution, team members should learn to navigate it. To do so, you must build a dialog and facilitate positive interactions, thus laying the basis for coping with each minor clash in a constructive way.


    Also, one should not forget that sometimes people just want to vent. Therefore, if someone is complaining about a certain issue simply listening can bring relief.

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