Managing Conflict

managing conflict

Conflict in projects is inevitable. There will be conflict in developing strategy, managing scope, planning for the project, execution of those plans, and completing the project on-time and on-budget. There will be conflicts with top management, with project leaders, between team members, with vendors, and with customers or end-users.

We all know that not all conflict is bad. Conflict that forces us to reframe a problem and take another view may improve the outcome or lower the risk of failure.  But there is also conflict that is dysfunctional and serves only to sidetrack the team, waste time, cost money, and threaten group process.

Sometimes it is difficult, especially at the beginning of a conflict, to determine whether it is functional or dysfunctional. And placing the conflict in one or the other of these categories depends upon the organization. In closed organizations where conflict is discouraged and group think is encouraged, almost any conflict will be considered dysfunctional. In those organizations, people are expected to go along to get along. At least this is the prevailing philosophy on the surface. Beneath the surface, closed organizations create their own time bombs.

In open organizations constructive or function conflict is encouraged. Disagreement, challenges and questions become important ingredients to help project managers make the decisions that are necessary to meet the tests of the competitive market.

Of course, dysfunctional conflict, especially of a personal or aggressive nature, is never welcomed in either open or closed organizations.

Nonetheless, a decision as to how the conflict is to be managed needs must be made. If it is dysfunctional conflict, then boundaries must be established and enforced.  If it is functional conflict, then boundaries need to be reduced and room created to consider the possibility that the problem needs to be reframed.

On several occasions, foam that had broken loose from the Challenger’s fuel tanks did little damage to the space vehicle. When engineers at NASA expressed concern that the foam did present a hazard, they were overruled and warned to keep quiet. Nothing was done. Management was under pressure to complete a successful mission and they were unwilling to listen to anything that would prevent this outcome. Had his conflict between engineers and management been considered differently and the safety issue with regard to the insulation reframed, the Columbia disaster may never have happened.

Since conflict is inevitable two steps need to be undertaken.  First, project managers must show an ability to deal constructively with conflict and second there must be a control mechanism to ensure that they are capable of putting these skills to work.