Saturday, January 11, 2014


"All polishing is done by friction.  The music of the violin we get by friction.  We left the savage style when we discovered fire by friction.  We talk of the friction of mind on mind as a good thing.”
                                                                                                - Mary Parker Follett

“Conflict is as inevitable in a project environment as change seems to be” (Vijay K. Verma, The Human Aspects of Project Management: Human Resource Skills for the Project Manager, Volume Two, PMI 1996).  So begins chapter 3 on Understanding Conflict.  (I have a hardcopy of the book around here somewhere, but for my refresher for this post, I re-read chapters three and four from PMI’s eReads member benefit.)
I completed my five-part series on governance in the project context and project conflict seemed the natural successor to that series.  After all, putting a governance system in place establishes a state of conflict that is beneficial to the project.  A good project manager and a good PMO will understand the different types of conflict and know when and how to use them for the project’s benefit.

I’ve worked with many managers and project managers that are conflict averse.  When I bring it up with them and point out what they are doing, they often readily acknowledge what they are doing and are still hesitant to change.  This style is consistent with the earliest management and project management practices, which was to avoid or reduce conflict.
Eventually, accepted practice was to allow natural occurrences of conflict to develop, the behavioral view.  The latest practice, the interactionist view, is to encourage appropriate conflict, much as implementing project governance creates a conflict between the governance team and the project delivery team, that, when done properly, benefits the organization and the project.  Verma goes much further into these three views.

The whole notion of stimulating conflict is difficult to accept because conflict traditionally has a negative connotation. However, the interactionist view encourages conflict. There is evidence that, in some situations, an increase in conflict actually improves performance (Verma, ibid, chapter 4).  However, too much of anything is detrimental.  They key is finding the proper balance (foreshadowing for a future post), as shown in this table from Verma’s book:

Table 3.1: The Value of Conflict
Positive Aspects
Negative Aspects
Diffuses more serious conflicts
Can lead to more hostility and aggression
Fosters change and creativity as new options are explored
Desire to "win" blocks exploration of new opportunities
Enhances communication if both parties are committed to mutual gain
Inhibits communication; relevant information never shared
Increases performance, energy, and group cohesion
Causes stress; creates in unproductive atmosphere
Balances power and influence if collaborative problem solving techniques are emphasized.
May cause loss of status or position power when both parties take it as a contest of wills and strive for a win-lose outcome.
Clarifies issues and goals Negative Aspects
Real issues overlooked as positions become confused with personalities

 So what is the best practice?  Expect conflict.  Find the proper balance between avoiding conflict and stimulating conflict.  This means both averaging toward the center of the spectrum, but also having a high deviation.  This way, conflict management becomes another tool available for you to apply appropriately as conditions warrant.
So are you a conflict traditionalist (conflict is bad), a behavioralist (conflict is natural) or an interactionist (conflict should be encouraged)?  How about the management and leadership (these, of course, are two different groups) of your company?  Does that explain your company’s performance?

© 2014 Chuck Morton.  All Rights Reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment