Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cross-Site Collaboration And Conflict Management

The first step in solving a conflict is to identify its cause. Then comes finding and applying a solution. For this, the conflict is taken out of the personal space and approached pragmatically, depersonalized. Safety should be guaranteed for participants by forbidding blaming and pointing fingers. Focus, instead, should be put finding solutions collaboratively. In the end, the issue and its resolution must be added to a log for further reference. Lessons and best practices are then extracted and processes improved.

Identifying the source of conflict:

According to PMI, there are seven sources of conflict. In order of frequency, they are sorted as follows:

  1. Schedules
  2. Project priorities
  3. Resources
  4. Technical opinions
  5. Administrative procedures
  6. Cost
  7. Personality
The hard fact is that "personality" is the last frequent in reality, although many tend to blame it as the main source of issues in projects. To me, that is because many managers don't know the other 6 and it is easier to blame it on someone you can point your finger at (except the PM :) ). As the Pareto principle applies in this case as in many others, I'd say that  it would be safe to begin by excluding "personality" from the list and try first to fit the issue in the other categories. Beside a better understanding of the real cause, this thinking has the benefit of cooling things down as sides can focus on finding a solution, without feeling the need to guard their personal space.

Finding solutions:

Things can become explosive in a cross site collaboration because it is more difficult to act emphatically, it is natural to think in terms of "us" and "them" and misunderstandings can occur at all stages, even if people seem to agree. Therefore, a set clear rules are mandatory to ensure conflicts surface early and that they are treated up-front, before the situation degrades. Here are a few:
  • All teams must understand that it is their responsibility to solve the problems. Their actions are measured and recorded and a post-mortem will be done on how the collaboration went. To support this, the managers should create a set of ground rules and encourage a culture of exchange and free speech.

  • When a problem occurs, everyone should look critically at themselves and see how they could have acted better. Acknowledge you can change yourself but you cannot change the other.
    • Has my message been properly understood?
    • Under what conditions does the other person receive my message? Is he under heavy load? Is he under pressure? Do I understand his point of view and his situation?

  • Once the problem has occurred, act immediately. Problems don't solve by themselves. Be assertive, refer to yourself and express your feelings: "Look, I feel like there is a misunderstanding somewhere". Cool temper needs to be preserved even if the other side is acting aggressively.

  • If you cannot solve it yourself, raise the problem to your manager and / or to the collaboration coordinator (if one exists). It then becomes his responsibility to interact with the other side. Provide reasons why you could not solve the problem yourself and show the steps you took. Take responsibility for what you have done. 

  • In the end, once a solution is found, a written note is archived with the problem and its solution. This written note acknowledges that the problem had, indeed, been fixed. Once the note is acknowledged by all parties, the issue is considered closed.

Managers should find ways to allow people to raise and fix issues safely. Don't blame, but encourage solutions and cool temper. What is measured is the capability of people to collaborate rather than the number of problems they encountered. Accept that problems will occur, but try to learn from them.

Lessons learned:

The issues should be kept in a log. This log will be used for two purposes: to see how the conflicts evolved and to evaluate the capacity of the team to manage conflictual situations. Based on it, processes are improved and people learn to interact and collaborate. The knowledge is then passed to the next project.


While I believe that constructive conflicts are a positive sign that things move forward, it is better to proactively diffuse latent problems before they appear. To do this, management focus should be kept on the following areas:

  • Risk management - key to project success. If risks are identified early, acknowledged by everyone and mitigation plans sketched, trust is enhanced. Therefore, people are less afraid, they have a better sense of security and thus will less likely be in defensive mode. 

  • Prevent stress / project pressure - the same as above. Pressure raises schedule and priority issues which tend to be explosive as people become more tense. Therefore, management should focus on releasing stress and encouraging a relaxed atmosphere.

  • Prevent fear - when management looks for assigning guilt, people will be less willing to confront problems early and they will start pointing fingers. No room for collaboration.

  • Prevent directive management - a directive management style will generally not encourage openness and engagement. Therefore, problems can linger around uncovered for longer periods of time, without being solved. Otherwise, pointing fingers and blaming can occur.

  • Having a clear, common set of ground rules to follow - provides a reference for the desired behaviour.

  • Having a clear organizational structure, decision process and information flow - standardizes  how people interact and what responsibilities they have. A go-to book for management of expectations.

To sum-up, a healthy, empowering management culture together with good project management practices form a solid basis for a cross-site collaboration. It is more difficult at a distance and, therefore, more records should be kept and more attention should be given to developing a culture of mutual respect, empathy and understanding. Also, a continuous, open learning process should be put in place. Ideally, it should all be treated like a game, so that people feel safe and are willing to explore their boundaries without concerns.