Conflict is a constant companion in the world of product development. Adopt an architecture that converts this liability into an asset to strengthen your team and the products it delivers to market
Product development is tricky stuff. We are in the business of creating something from nothing, embedded within complex, global, collaborative enterprises. Conflict is endemic to that process. Indeed, there are those who believe that conflict is a critical attribute to the creation of great products. Count me among them.
Conflict pushes us to maximize performance
Conflict keeps our focus on the needs of our customers
Conflict forces us to examine multiple options, cut away the fat, and secure high ground
Conflict helps leadership to understand where we are, what is challenging our progress, and how they can best engage to create alignment
Conflict sharpens team cohesion
Conflict sharpens team cohesion
But conflict can also be corrosive. When not addressed in a swift and egalitarian fashion, it can fester to become a source of increasing drag on enterprise progress. Because humans are tribal creatures, conflict that begins between two individuals or groups in one subject area can spread to areas having nothing to do with that original concern. When conflict becomes endemic in this way, it blossoms into feud.
We need a forward-focused structure in place to address conflict in our programs before it does too much damage. Left unchecked, it has the potential to eat us alive.
I utilize a high-level structure to organize my teams strategically around conflict resolution. This seems awfully formal when typed out in blog form, but my experience has been that it can be established up-front and utilized in a manner that feels second nature in no time.
There are three key attributes to successful conflict resolution: Embracing the Conflict, Opening Lines of Communication, and Establishing a Decision-Making Hierarchy. Let’s take a look at each, along with a few activation examples.
ATTRIBUTE: Embracing the Conflict
There are plenty of legitimate reasons for conflict to exist within our complex enterprises:
- Multiple jurisdictions with different areas of focus
- Separate business units, each with its own revenue streams
- The ever-present fight for control of meager product development resources
- The natural responsibilities of those groups tasked with de-risking the enterprise, such as Audit, Procurement, Legal, and InfoSec, as opposed to those tasked with enterprise expansion, like Sales, BizDev, and R&D
Perpendicular agendas are architected into many organizations because there’s just no other way to create a company that can simultaneously cover its many needs. In those cases, conflict isn’t caused by resources being angry or mean — they are simply doing their jobs. Conflict is a natural occurrence in these environments, and we must create structure to manage it with a minimum of angst and blowback.
The first, most important attribute to this structure is admitting those conflicts exist and dragging them into the sunshine for examination. We can’t fix what we can’t understand. Do the research and have the conversations necessary to clearly and completely define each conflict that is causing significant drag. Sometimes, shining this bright light reveals that there’s way more bark there than bite, and the resolution process can be that much easier to execute.
We can’t fix what we can’t understand
Two different work experiences of mine present opportunities for comparison. In one, the leader of our org was a well-known personality with a powerful core of enthusiastic followers. There was also a sizable faction of our target demographic, however, that our research had revealed to harbor passionately negative emotions about our brand. Unfortunately, there was an informal understanding that we weren’t to talk about that negative research when the leader was in the room. That was conflict we were not free to embrace, a state that created all sorts of wasted time, effort, and circuitous communication. Every company has liabilities, and these need to integrated into strategy in a logical fashion. A different CEO at a different company — also a celebrity — presented a counterpoint. That leader seemed always on the prowl for festering conflict, loving nothing more than to tug it from the shadows and get it addressed. This made for some uncomfortable meetings, but created a clarity and consistency that allowed the team to move at high velocity. Two different orgs operating at different scales, but interesting to compare, nonetheless.
ATTRIBUTE: Opening the Lines of Communication
If you have followed the instructions above and dragged your conflict into the sunshine, you better have a structure in place to hash it out among the relevant parties. Some of this is cultural, as different industries/enterprises have different default strategies for working through conflict. Having spent a considerable portion of my career on Wall Street, I’m no stranger to the executive shouting match. Other orgs work better with formal written briefs and gap analysis. Choose the communications medium that is the best fit for your own culture. I’m not here to judge — as long as you have a structure in place that allows all participants to feel safe in articulating and justifying their positions, you can find your way to resolution.
As long as you have a communications structure in place that allows all participants to feel safe in articulating and justifying their positions, you can find your way to resolution
Establish clear and stable rules of engagement for communicating about conflict:
- When will we talk through the disagreement?
- Who will be included in that conversation?
- what supporting assets will be brought into the analysis?
- What guardrails will be put in place to keep the conversation efficient and under control?
Many conflicts involve sensitive topics related to people, assets, and financials. Create a structure wherein these details can be exposed, examined, and addressed in a way that respects and maintains appropriate sensitivity
Leadership needs to decide if it is more interested in supporting its favorites: people, clients, products, markets, etc., or finding its way to the truth. If the communication rules of engagement apply to different individuals in different ways at different times — they break down in a hurry.
ATTRIBUTE: Establishing a Decision-Making Hierarchy
Getting those conflicts into the sunshine and creating an effective communications structure to clearly understand them from all angles will get us to resolution about 80% of the time. When we drain the angst out the bottom of most issues, the best course of action is usually clear to everyone.
When we drain the angst out the bottom of most issues, the best course of action is usually clear to everyone
Occasionally, however, our analysis around a conflict will lead to impasse. Everybody makes a good argument, but a single choice is required. Who is going to make that call?
Enterprise leadership must put in place a clear hierarchy of decision-making authority. Different enterprises have different aesthetics: some are comfortable pushing authority deeply down to those closest to the action. Others are more confident centralizing authority across a smaller set of leaders with formalized jurisdiction. Regardless of the aesthetic, there needs to be some kind of ladder that teams can climb in search of a leader with adequate authority to provide clear and binding resolution. And there must be mechanisms in place that allow for those escalations to be managed efficiently. Finally, that decision-maker must understand their role in the process and have the courage to provide a definitive and adequately detailed choice.
I once worked under an otherwise terrific CEO who chose to deploy her authority sparingly — leaving her direct reports to “fight it out” to determine whose solution would come out on top. Good strategy for identifying ruthless EVPs, bad strategy for elevating the best ideas. As a leader, it is your right and responsibility to make the tough calls based on imperfect information. Do your job.
As soon as a challenge has been successfully adjudicated, decisions need to be memorialized in program documentation. Not only will this protect the team from plodding over the same rocky terrain more than once [it happens all the time on long-term programs], it’ll also begin building an archive of past decisions to serve as a reference for future conflict. If we can see that the Program Sponsor made a certain decision the last three times this kind of issue swung around, we can be reasonably sure of how she will rule if this one hits her desk, as well.
Thrust, Parry, Slash, Parry, Thrust
Conflict is a constant companion in the world of product development. Complex enterprises, a chaotic marketplace, and the need to move at speed set us at tactical odds with one another occasionally, even while we may be strategically aligned. Creating a solid architecture for conflict resolution is a critical component to your larger operational governance [SEE ALSO: https://drewharteveld.medium.com/operational-governance-5eebd570ff68 ]
Create that solid architecture by:
- Embracing the Conflict
- Opening Lines of Communication
- Establishing a Decision-Making Hierarchy
Executed properly, the liability of conflict can be converted into an asset that strengthens your team and the products it delivers to the marketplace.