Saturday, September 29, 2012

Conflict Resolution - Is There An App For That?

Conflict is a common and natural event in any project environment.  Conflict can even be healthy to a certain degree, if it is the result of creativity and a diversity of views, but soon becomes unhealthy if left unresolved to fester and breed animosity and distrust between project team members.

Conflict can occur between all project stakeholders and during all project phases.  Sources of conflict typically vary during the project life cycle but can be caused, for example, by disputes and disagreements over priorities, processes, schedules, roles, budgets, resources - to name just a few.

Of course, the best way to resolve conflict is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. 

Two good approaches for preventing or reducing conflict are:
Focus On Goals (Not Particular Solutions).
By making project goals the focus, conflicts can often be easily resolved or avoided by asking a simple question: Which solution is going to get us to meet our project goals more quickly and effectively?  Quite often conflicts tend to arise over trying to implement a particular "pet solution", but when examined in the light of what is most expedient and practical to meet the project goals, the pet solution may be deemed less practical and the resolution becomes very clear.

Foster Trust And Teamwork On Your Project
To do this, the project manager needs to lead by example:
-  Listen to and trust your team.
-  Be open to all ideas and suggestions.
-  Foster a fun and collaborative work environment for your project teams (and yourself).
-  Praise and encourage more, criticize less. 
-  Collaborate with your project team to develop a Team Operating Agreement, to include their  suggestions for team values and team operating principles - and adhere to it.

To resolve any conflicts that do occur, the following are some approaches you should consider:

This is the approach most often chosen by project managers, who feel they have no recourse but to jump in and make a judgement call to resolve the conflict, but it is my least recommended approach.  If the project manager happens to be not only the mediator, but also one of the parties involved in the conflict, then you can see how this might not be a satisfactory approach.  Even if the project manager is not one of the parties in the dispute, the "losing" party will inevitably feel that the project manager has unjustly favored the other party, and resentment (hidden or otherwise) will accrue. 
Depending on the type of conflict, external groups such as HR or external mediators and facilitators can be helpful in mediating and resolving some conflicts.

A project manager can never delegate too much, and delegation is particularly beneficial if one of the parties in the dispute owns the responsibility for the task or solution under dispute.  In this case, the owner of the task or solution should be given the authority to proceed with his/her recommended approach. 

Ignoring a conflict is a good approach if both the conflict and consequences are minor, or not directly related to the project.  In this situation, the project manager getting involved could only make the conflict bigger.   However, ignoring a serious conflict will also be more difficult to solve as positions get entrenched over time and project delays and impacts increase.  

Toss A Coin
Don't laugh.  Here's a true story:
Many years ago, I was Director of one of the two large Data Centers for my company in Toronto.  The company had an identical Data Center building in Montreal, but over the years differing computing facilities and operating procedures had been implemented.  My counterpart for the Montreal Data Center and I made the strategic decision that we would move towards achieving equivalent computing facilities and operating procedures, so that in the event of a disaster, one Data Center could serve as the backup for the other. 

Every now and then we would be approached by one of our managers, indicating that they wanted to use a particular solution or software tool, but that the other Data Center wanted to use something else, and they of course assumed we would side with them and try and convince the other Data Center to use our solution.  So the other Director and I agreed that when this situation arose we would "toss a coin" to pick the solution. The main point, of course, was that the particular solution was less important than the goal, and since both solutions would work, pick one and let's move on.

Well we only had to do this once, and were never approached again.  The managers realized that they could toss the coin themselves, or better still, make their case to each other, give and take appropriately and resolve it amicably.  A few years later, when we did have a major fire in one Data Center and had to recover our applications in the other, having a good working relationship and identical operating procedures was "priceless".

Is There An App For That?
Of course!  Tossing a coin is so last century.  And what do you do when you are confronted with three or more choices, all of which can work?  Just push the green button (or spin the wheel) and let the magic of technology decide.  Your managers will be impressed (or not), and will be less likely to come to you to make these decisions, when they can make the decisions themselves, using the same technology (or not).

There are a variety of "Decision Maker" apps that you can customize for yourself, but I used the Decide Now! app, available for the iPhone, iPad or iPod touch (sometimes free, but currently $0.99).

What techniques have you used to resolve conflicts on your project?