Conflict as a vaccine - a help for the team working in Scrum

In a safe and controlled environment, for the team working in Scrum, conflict can be what a vaccine is to a human body.

They died within a minute of launch. The massive explosion that shook up their space shuttle didn't give any of the crew member a chance. It was January 1986. That's how the would-be Challenger flight ended. The culprit? A damaged seal. All the shuttle's constructors knew about the defect; nobody reacted.

Why not? They were afraid of conflict. And for this reason, they succumbed to the "groupthink syndrome" - a phenomenon described in the 1970s by the American psychologist, Irving Janis. It occurs when team members do not have the courage to reveal their views, often different from the officially adopted position. They believe it’s best to stay under the radar.

This kind of thinking leads to a situation in which, although everyone sees problems, nobody does anything to fix them, waiting for someone else to step forward. Such thinking inevitably leads to wrong decisions.

And so, although conflict is often associated with something harmful; its presence - in Scrum teams and beyond - is essential to achieve optimal results. Conflict is like a vaccine: yes, it hurts when you get one, but it immunizes you to things that are bad.

False consensus

Avoiding conflict gives rise to false unanimity. Problems are not immediately visible, but when frustration grows - because nobody solves anything - the conflict still erupts, only later and with double the power. What’s more, mutual grudges and grievances, accumulated over a long period of time, can ruin the chance for smooth cooperation in the future.

It's quite different when a team doesn't avoid overcoming further difficulties - it gives confidence to team members, and mutual support strengthens everyone's conviction that "they can do it". This conviction, in turn, makes the team more willing to take on new initiatives and conduct experiments. And facing unexpected problems that come along the way stimulates creativity.

It sounds easier than it is. Because in order to make it work, you need one important component - trust.

Easy to say ‘trust me’

When studying the Scrum Guide, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of trust, after all, the word appears only once in the text. According to Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, trust is a kind of psychological security defined as "a shared conviction of team members that it is safe for them to take interpersonal risks" or "a feeling of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”.

It is difficult to trust someone we do not know and whose motivation is a complete mystery to us. But seeing the individualism of each team member is the basis for building a bond that will become the foundation of mutual trust. That’s why, in our Scrum teams developing corporate banking system , one of the ways in which we build trust for each other is to learn about our strengths and share them as a team. 

Clifton test

To find out about these strengths, you can run a Top 5 Clifton Strengths test - it will show you your dominant five talents out of 34 ones defined by Gallup. The talents tell you in which areas you have naturally repeating patterns of thinking, feeling or behaving that can be used productively. By working on them, supporting them with our acquired knowledge or skills, we can make the talents grow and turn them into our strengths.

It's worth realizing that talents can be mature or not. The former allows us to use our strengths productively, while the latter can sometimes even make it harder for us to be fully effective at work or to interact effectively with other people. Sharing them in a team allows its members to tell a piece of their story, get to know each other and see that everyone is unique.

This also sounds easier than it is. Because here you need trust that’s mutual.

Work(shop) it out

We work with talents in the workshop formula - each participant has the opportunity to familiarize the team with their Top 5. While talking about our talents, it is worth emphasizing that they show our individual predispositions and should not be used to put labels on people. They should rather inspire personal development and sharing who we are.

Another exercise is to prepare a few sentences about ourselves: about what we bring to the team in relation to our talents and what needs we have. This helps to learn the motivation of other team members, e.g. why they ask questions (Analytical, Deliberative, Restorative, Intellection), why they insist on taking action (Activator), why they need an action plan (Discipline) or a goal that helps to set priorities (Focus).

We also look at how our talents are distributed within the team and in which areas of the team we have strengths and where we have deficits. It's helpful to create a talent map for team members, divided into the four areas mentioned above. This is a good starting point to reflect within the team on how it affects its dynamics, what moves it forward and what inhibits it.

Naturally, with an unbalanced team, this creates the temptation to select people based on the missing talents. However, there is no convincing evidence that some perfect talent combination guarantees the success of the team. You should always try to build on what you have.

On friendly terms with conflict

So, the conflict can be productive and serve to find the best solutions - even if at first glance it doesn't help at all. The key is to be aware of the individualism of each team member. Example: people with Deliberative talent can be seen as attacking any idea by finding all the possible problems and reasons why something can go wrong. But it is harder to see someone as such a pessimist, knowing that they are criticizing things to make the best decision and minimize the risk.

It is the awareness of the individualism of each person with whom we work – plus the confidence – that protect the team from the harmful effects of conflict. It is thanks to them that the courage to have a different opinion appears, even if someone prefers to lay low in conflict situations.

This way we realize we can differ on many views, experiences and motivators, yet sit down together, have stormy discussions, draw conclusions and continue to work together.

Adam Szewc, Piotr Sielski

comarch corporate banking
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