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While working on process transformation/ optimization and upgrading the Project Management Office for a large healthcare client, we faced the number of conflicts. Like any other org transformation exercise, this exercise had all the three dimensions – People, Processes, and Technology.
This client has undergone a terrible experience 3 years ago, where an exercise to upgrade their IT systems failed user’s acceptance and they had to fall back to the old methods of working after spending months and millions on the new initiative.
Effectively managing conflicts is an essential skill of a successful transformation leader. Awareness of the potential approaches to conflict resolution and understanding when to use what technique, and its likely outcomes, can equip the leaders with the required skills. If managed well, conflicts can lead to innovative ideas and approaches and that can also facilitate the surfacing of critical issues.
Whenever we experienced a conflict we first checked whether the conflict was functional or dysfunctional. Constructive conflicts or functional conflict occurs when people differ on ideas and the situation can be a learning opportunity. In this case, a few key stakeholders insisted that the transformation exercise was a waste of time since they earlier went through the similar exercise and gained nothing. We encouraged discussions on their earlier experience and this helped us prepare our activities with caution, especially for the specific individuals. Involvement of individuals affected by the conflict was increased. This approach also brought out underlying issues and helped in avoiding potential risks.
Deconstructive conflicts occur when a solution to the conflicting situation has not been found and the problem remains for a longer period. Energy gets diverted from more important activities or issues, the morale of teams or individuals is lowered, and teams are polarized. Destructive conflict or dysfunctional conflict may create negative tension among team members, may lead to irrational personality clashes, worsen the overall situation and adversely impact project progress.
The next step for us was to understand sources of conflicts.
The following are a few common reasons for conflicts in organization transformation projects
• Conflicting interests of stakeholders. Some stakeholders may not see any value in the initiative or may have conflicting political interest.
• Scope creep. Many requirements which are ‘a must to do’ are discovered after the scope has been frozen. These requirements creep into the scope without appropriate approvals.
• Conflicting resource assignments and responsibilities within the team or between projects.
• Ambitious schedules as asked by stakeholders.
• Cost overrun, unplanned expenses and budget cuts.
• Differences in opinions among various subject matter experts and execution teams.
• Rigid administrative procedures interfere with the smooth functioning of the project.
• Personality differences among between team members.
• Lack of understanding of diverse cultures in diverse teams.
• Poor conflict management skills of transformation leader.
To adequately address the conflict the following steps we followed the following steps
The first step is to understand the conflict:
• Understand the dynamics of conflict before resorting to any resolution technique. The following can help in understanding conflicts.
o Facts: People see the same fact from distinctly different viewpoints.
o Methods: People disagree on how to do something.
o Goals: The goals toward which people work are different.
o Values: People differ in their basic values.
• Actively listen to conflicting parties:
Concentrate on what the person is trying to communicate, focus on both the words and non-verbal cues from gestures and body language. Gestures are often more important than words. Listening allows the conflict to take its natural course by giving individuals the opportunity to disagree, express strong opinions, and show passion for ideas. Respect for individual differences is demonstrated and an environment of understanding is fostered. When the transformation manager can understand the needs and interests of individuals, trust is built and the chances of the other party’s agreeing to the transformation manager significantly increase – as do the chances of satisfactorily resolving the conflict for both parties.
• Acknowledge: Acknowledgement confirms that the party is being heard and does not mean agreement. The opinions and feelings of all team members are valid, even if different from others. For example, statements like, "I understand your feelings," "Let's work on your suggestion" etc. are all ways of acknowledging communication and others point of view. While one may not agree with what they are saying, it shows that they are being heard.
• Be sensitive and remain emotionally engaged: When resolving disagreements, deal with feelings first. Being sensitive to the emotions of people is critical for able conflict management. It has often been observed that emotional engagement in the event of a conflict achieves much better and long-lasting results than trying to resolve an issue detached from human sensitivities. The ability to view and resolve conflicts with sensitivity and the importance of conflict management with a human touch cannot be overstated.
• Respond: Transformation leaders have multiple options to respond depending upon the situation and what results the transformation leadership wants out of it. A trivial conflict can be ignored. Some conflicts can be avoided, confronted or escalated. In other cases, the conflicting requirements can be accommodated, a compromise solution can be reached, or in some cases, solutions can be forced on the party or parties involved. Some conflicts which may have legal or compliance exposure need to be resolved as per the organization’s policy. Functional conflicts are generally encouraged and at times the program leadership may find it prudent to withdraw or delay decisions.
At times, the conflict resolution approach can be changed during negotiation. For example, the transformation leadership may start with options of accommodating other requirements and finally change the situation to a compromise where the other party must agree to or even may be forced to accept a solution.
The reasons for the conflict should be clearly understood that many a times problem needs to be redefined. Break the conflict down into manageable logical parts. The conflicts can also be resolved in parts and different resolution techniques can be used for each part. For example, let us say an organization requirement considered as critical has been brought in for inclusion in the solution to be deployed soon. The organization considers this requirement as a ‘must do’ whereas the development team finds this as extremely difficult to deliver the same in a short span of time and the sponsor is not at all willing to move the deployment date. If the requirement is broken into small segments, it is possible that a part of the requirement can be delivered by the due date, a workaround for another part can be found and the organization can wait for the next release to get the remaining part.
Effectively Managing Conflicts
The challenge for organization and transformation leaders is to try to maintain the right balance and intensity of conflict in a project. By understanding the dynamics of conflict and by learning and practicing approaches to conflict resolution, managers will be able to establish an environment in which creativity and innovation are encouraged and project goals are accomplished. However, if the conflict is not managed properly, it can be detrimental to the project, team relationships, business partnerships, and interpersonal connections. Conflict management is a learned skill. Transformation leaders can learn different approaches for managing and resolving conflicts in the project. In some instances, the transformation leader's lack of skills to effectively manage and resolve conflict can be a risk to the project success. If the conflict is complex and the project leader is unable to get the team past it, then hiring a team coach is a clever idea.
Situation Method Resolution Process and Impact Example
1 Trivial issue Has almost no impact on project goal The problem will go away with time.
Many small issues get resolved on their own.
They just need to keep on the watch list. TLs may not make any extra efforts to work on them. A known valuable resource has created some issue in the team, which appears to be the result of being temporarily emotionally upset. The requirement for development of a new not very important report was not clearly understood by a new developer, who is still coming up to speed .
2 Team members and project leadership is learning from the conflict Team involvement in the project/program of the individuals affected by the conflict is increased.
Teams are becoming more cohesive.
Hidden issues are surfacing and getting resolved.
New and better solutions are emerging.
Healthy competition is increasing the overall efficiency of the project/ program delivery
Create opportunities to encourage constructive discussion on different ideas. Institute recognition for better solutions, performance, and idea. Create an atmosphere of mutual respect for even the worst solution. Intervene and provide feedback, in case the conflict is becoming dysfunctional A team member wants to suggest a more efficient way of doing a project work. One team working on the new way of working or technology finds that the existing quality processes cannot be complied with.
There is an impending personal requirement of a resource to work from home/remote location, which will require the change in organization policy.
3 The project goals must be achieved Project leadership wants to create the obligation for a trade-off later.
Stakes are low.
Liability is limited.
Any solution is adequate.
Harmony and good will get created.
Chances of losing for management are high.
Give and take
One party sacrifices own interest to accommodate other parties.
At times, the conflicts are not resolved, but project impact is reduced. There are a few critical business requirements to be met which involves working late hours and two weekends
The delivery organizations ask some trainees or people with different skills to brought on the project and be trained and deployed.
4 Both parties need to win.
There is a deadlock.
Time is not sufficient.
Transformation management wants to maintain the relationship among the involved parties.
Transformation management loses if there is no compromise. Stakes are moderate.
--- Compromise ---
Give and take
One party sacrifice own interest to accommodate another party.
The conflicts are not resolved, but project impact is reduced.
The organization wants changes in the baselined design during the build phase. The project budget is not in the position to afford the total cost of this critical change. However, the organization leadership confirms to reward the project through other paid work.
5 Stakes are high, but transformation management is not prepared.
Maintaining neutrality at this stage will be of help.
Delaying helps transformation management win.
--- Delay ---.
Isolate the conflicting teams for the time being.
Set hopes that a favorable solution is being worked out.
A few team members performing critical jobs which need to move to another team do not cooperate for transitioning their work. The new team will be ready within a specified period.
The work being performed by team/member raising conflict is likely to be completed in a brief period.
6 Both parties need to win.
Skills are complementary
Time is sufficient.
Trust is present.
The project wants to create a common power base.
--- Confront ---
The best approach for long-term engagement .
Requires open and direct communication.
Need to address the root cause of conflict and eliminate.
Positions being assigned to the new team members are not accepted by a few key resources. The schedule of project delivery is not in line with business needs. The project wants to decrease cost and some work needs to be outsourced to low-cost suppliers. Many key stakeholders are not comfortable with this proposal.
7 Some team members have issues in accepting organization policies and directions.
--- follow the organization's defined process ----
A conflict management process needs to be in place in the organization and need to be adapted to the project or program. Some team members expressed serious reservations while dealing with LGTB resources, which are accepted by the organization's policy.
The organization insists on complying with quality processes which are not applicable to new products or technology being used by the team
8 There are critical issues which must be resolved ASAP for the smooth progress of the project.
The transformation leadership has limited influence on, at least one of the conflicting party.
An escalation process needs to exist in the project/program There is serious resistance to the organization plan to shift the project office to a new location and there is a risk of losing some important resources. The risk needs to be a part of the mitigation plan and requires budgetary support.
There are a few stakeholders, who covertly are resisting the change.
Some resources, who are becoming surplus due to the transformation initiative are likely to do damage to the organization assets.
9 Stakes are high.
Important principles are at stake.
The relationship between parties is not important.
A quick decision must be made.
The transformational leadership is more powerful .
It is win-lose situation but does not impact the project adversely Replace or remove the party which is adversely impacting the program at an appropriate time. A few resources who are responsible for conflicts need to be removed from the project.
A vendor has been failing to provide promised service despite follow up. Notice to be issued to the vendors for termination (as per terms and conditions in the contract).
10. Transformation management cannot win.
Stakes are medium or low.
---- Withdraw ----
Avoidance can only delay the situation, not resolve it.
Make adequate documentation for reasons to withdraw and if any subsequent follow up required. A decision to scrap part of the project/program was taken at the highest level in the organization. The organization finances cannot afford the program anymore.
The project sponsor strongly believes that the method proposed by him/ her for resolving an issue is far better than proposed by others and have specified clearly that no more discussion will take place.: