Conflict in project management is very much like conflict in a marriage: it’s going to happen. The key is in the process used to resolve the conflict. The likelihood that conflict occurs in information systems development projects is extremely high because the individuals involved are from different backgrounds and cultures working together in the project. Conflicts can arise due to differences in values, needs, perceptions, and personalities. Appropriate skills in dealing with conflict can help project managers to handle conflicts effectively and lead to a successful conclusion of the project.
Amy Ohlendorf discusses in her article that conflict is a state in which different parties are aware of the incompatibility of their positions with each other and that these parties choose to hold those positions even though they know them to be incompatible (Ohlendorf, 2001). In her article she discusses how to understand the pros and cons of conflict; how it can be both beneficial and detrimental to the project.
We have to realize that the environment the Project Manager works in can be characterized by large cultural diversity (PMBOK, 2013). Teams are made up of people with many different experiences, come from many different countries; each with their own unique culture and language. Their values will be very different from the Project Manager and other members of the team. These differences will cause them to look and perceive the expectations of the project completely different from other team members. What the Project Manager should do is use these differences to the advantage of the project and the team (PMBOK, 2013). Ms. Ohlendorf points out that these differences can aid in strengthening the project outcome as well as the organization overall if one takes a positive proactive approach (Ohlendorf, 2001).
Storming Stage and Conflict Resolution Approaches
The Project Manager has to realize that not all conflict is bad (Wong, 2007) in fact, some conflict can actually aid in pushing the project through complex problems. A good debate amongst peers can actually help to bring them closer together into a tighter working relationship. These types of debates generally will occur, as described in the Tuckman Ladder (cited in PMBOK, 2013), during the storming stage in a project. Many times conflicts can arise during this stage.
The Project Manager can use a number of approaches to resolving conflicts (Kerzner, 2001):
• Confronting –The conflicting parties meet face-to-face to collaborate and come to an agreement to resolve the issue. This style involves open and direct communication which should lead the way to solving the problem. It should be used when it is early in the project so you have time, conflicting parties need a win-win, and it helps to foster good working relations.
• Compromising – Also known as give and take. In this case both parties need to win but you don’t have the luxury of time. A decision needs to be made and coming to the middle ground can help move things along. The thing with compromising is that all involved may get a little of something, but they don’t everything. Some might consider that better than nothing at all while others will feel they got too little. The Project Manager has to be prepared to use a little smoothing when using this approach.
• Smoothing – Some refer to this as an accommodating or agreeable way to come to resolution in an argument. I would use this if the stakes are low and I want to pocket some good will for down the road.
• Forcing – Used when a decision has to be made due to time or cost and the conflicting parties are not being agreeable. I’ve used this when the project simply had no more wiggle room or the sponsors basically said do it. I have used this in conjunction with smoothing so as not to have too many ruffled feathers.
• Avoiding – This approach is used when there is time to avoid so that you can better prepare yourself for a future discussion. You can use avoidance when the cost or the risk is low. But avoidance is not something that can be used very often. Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Smoothing might be in order here due to the need to placate until better prepared.
The impact on the project when using the above approaches has been shown to either lesson the amount of conflict or increase it. I have found that using the above approaches, while applicable in all stages (forming, norming, performing, and adjourning) I have found them used to a greater amount during the storming stage. A more confronting style has shown to limit the amount of conflict later in the project due to resolving issues early on rather using compromising, smoothing, or avoidance. Forcing can be one of the worst when it comes to lessening conflict as it usually leaves team members with hard feelings making them less likely to want to work on the project since their needs aren’t being met (Wong, 2007). The manner in which the Project Manager approaches conflict creates the manner in which the team responds to conflict in the future. Starting out by avoiding conflict will only increase the chances of it occurring as, or if, the project progresses (Ohlendorf, 2001).
Cognitive Analysis Approach:
I have found that the Project Manager needs to take what is referred to as a cognitive analysis approach to conflict resolution. The cognitive approach says that conflict is mainly due to perceptive differences between conflicting individuals. Using the confronting approach with cognitive analysis allows for feedback to be presented allowing for each side to gain insight into what the other is thinking. This insight gives conflicting teammates an opening to reach a satisfactory resolution to the conflicting issue. By identifying the real issue in the conflict resolution it allowed each side to concentrate on the real issue, not side issues which tend to be emotional. Each teammate comes to a greater understanding and appreciation of the other thus creating a cohesive working relationship (Ohlendorf, 2001).
One of the top skills that the Project Manager needs throughout these approaches is their ability to listen. And keep in mind that listening works both with the Project Manager and with the team member. Many times team members are busy trying to figure out how to win the argument rather than listening to what the other team member is saying. This behavior is particularly prevalent when the project has been doing a lot of avoidance or when the issue has been forced due to an uncompromising party to the conflict. Recently a conflict arose in my current project due to a decision forced on one team by another team impacted by the needs of the project. The team that had forced the original decision was now finding itself in the position to have to defend that decision to the sponsors of the project. They were trying to wiggle their way out of it and just kept digging that hole deeper and deeper. They weren’t listening, even when the team they had forced the original decision on was offering a face saving compromise. Listening would have led them to resolving the issue. Not listening almost caused irreparable damage the project as well as to relationships and reputations.
Conflict in project management is inevitable but when properly managed it can lead to favorable conditions. However, conflict can be very detrimental to a project if it is not well managed. For Project Managers the challenge is to try to find what the right amount of conflict in project management is. By understanding the subtleties of conflict, and learning the nuances of the different approaches to conflict resolution, Project Managers can establish an atmosphere in which comradery is encouraged and the project goals are reached.
Kerzner, H. (2001). Project management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling. New York: John Wiley.
Ohlendorf, A. (2001). Conflict resolution in project management. Information Systems Analysis.
Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK guide), fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.
Wong, Z. (2007). Human factors in project management: Concepts, tools, and techniques for inspiring teamwork and motivation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.