Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Solve Conflict Among Team Members Before it Starts

Remember those weird times in junior high when you were the go-between for two people who were attempting to be girl-friend/boy-friend or perhaps there was a conflict that needed resolved and notes needed to be exchanged.

The two people who had the most to gain or lose would invite a 3rd party into the equation to pass along notes or information because they were not capable of  communicating face-to-face.

I can remember one time when I was involved in a relationship-defining event between two good friends.  I was their letter courier.  One of them would have some emotional trauma about their relationship and they would tell me and with their permissions I would tell the other.  Or one of them would write a short letter, explain their underlying emotions to me and I would delivery the note with some hints about how the other person was feeling.

This was heart wrenching for not just 2 people, but 3 people. This practice extended the force field of emotional pain beyond the 2 people and brought in extra’s to help the drama fester.  It was horrible and in this case resulted in a heart wrenching breakup.  One of my friends was a pretty massive weight lifter and the whole episode melted this rather hulking guy into a puddle of tears.

Office Conflict

In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey, write, “The cause of almost all relationship difficulties is rooted in conflicting or ambigous expectations around roles and goals. Whether we are dealing with the questions of who does what at work, how you communicate with your daughter when you tell her to clean her room, or who feeds the fish and takes out the garbage, we can be certain that unclear expectations will lead to misunderstanding, disappointment , and withdrawals of trust.”

Over the course of your time in the office you are likely to experience criticism. One of the sharpest pains I feel is when someone not in the room is being belittled.  When this happens I feel a strong need to stand up for the absent person and to provide perspective about the situation.  This can help, but it often does not solve the root mis-alignment of roles, goals and expectations between colleagues.

In the event multiple team members seem to be frustrated with another team or person, it’s time for teams to come together and sort out their problems together so they can be on the same page.

Just like in junior high story, there needs to be an intervention, except this time there is restoration and not a break up.

Enter Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing

In 1965 Psychologist Bruce Tuckman introduced the team development concept of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.
Forming storming norming performing
Other’s have added onto this concept and re-name the phases over time, but essentially there the stages of team development involve some amount of conflict, posturing and finally resolution and performance.
The emotional energy and conflict in the Storming stage eats away at productivity and in some cases key patterns of behavior can linger if Storming and Norming fail to results in a common purpose, goal and shared working agreements.


”..participants form opinions about the character and integrity of the other participants and feel compelled to voice these opinions if they find someone shirking responsibility or attempting to dominate. Sometimes participants question the actions or decision of the leader as the expedition grows harder…”  - Rob Chatfield, Leadership the Outward Bound Way.


“Resolved disagreements and personality clashes result in greater intimacy, and a spirit of co-operation emerges” - Rob Chatfield, Leadership the Outward Bound Way.


“With group norms and roles established, group members focus on achieving common goals, often reaching an unexpectedly high level of success" Rob Chatfield, Leadership the Outward Bound Way.

As a team leader or project manager you want teams to accelerate through Storming and Norming and jump into Performing as quickly as possible.  

I’ve heard some people say that failure to pass through Storming will just delay the inevitable Storming to another day and cause the team to repeated regress before they can push through to Norming and Performing.  

In order for the team to establish the “norms and roles” the team must do the work of internalizing the goal(s)  and coming to some agreement on how they will interact with each other and the world around them.

Agile Chartering to the Rescue

Best way out is through

When creating a new team I want to provide some acceleration to get through storming and norming and into performing as quickly as possible.

My typical approach is two part meeting. First, define the problem that needs to be solved using, “Project Chartering” and then define the working agreements for the team using, “Team Chartering.”

Project Chartering provides an answer to WHAT.  
  • What are we building? 
  • What is the customer expectation? 
  • What are the key features? 
  • What are the milestone?
Team Chartering provides the HOW.  
  • How will we the team build this (What process)? 
  • How do we communicate with the business and marketing?  
  • How does the team delivery a solution to the customer?  
Admittedly there are a number of WHAT questions to ask in Team Chartering, but these WHAT questions are centered around the tactical working agreements and the teams process.
  • What should I do if I know I’m going to be late to team meetings?
  • What should I do if I reach a blocking issues?
  • What is the definition of done for our work product? (e.g. code reviewed, function tested, regression tested)
  • Who is responsible for moving an item to ‘Closed’ on the Scrum Board?
  • What should I do if I have a serious technical concern with an implementation?
  • Etc.
Some of these question seem pretty trivial. However, these are the kind of things that people stumble over in intra-team relationships.  I typically have a list of 50 questions that are both trivial and tough.

The length of chartering event depends on how many people are involved in the project.  Typically 6-8 hours is typical duration for combined Project/Team Chartering. If the team travels to a common location for a kick-off, book a day for this adventure and come armed with questions that the team needs to answer.  If the team is remote, you need to conduct this exercise with an online collaboration tool.  One of my favorites is Realtime Board (

The time investment might seems high for a meeting with a lot of people, but this concentrated time results in outstanding team performance.

I’ve seen an unintended A/B test in my own work environment where one team was chartered and other was not.  The chartered team demonstrates higher collaboration with internal members and external stakeholders and delivers high output than the non-chartered teams.

You could say it’s just the people. I’ve seen too many examples of good people on non-performing teams that result in bad outcome and average people on good teams that result in outstanding outcomes.  

There is a high correlation between success and good team process. For a team to be effective the roles and goals and norms need to be well defined. 

You either let the team struggle to define the roles, goals and norms, or you can prime the pump and race through storming and norming and shift the team into performing.

Is there conflict or disagree on your current teams?  What is the biggest issue?

Please add a comment or send me an e-mail with the ‘Contact Steve’ tab.