Projects are places where different parties meet, each with their own approaches, experiences, goals, and a desire to deliver a product that meets the specific needs of specific stakeholders. In theory, a project team wants to achieve the project’s goal, but in practice, the desire to deliver the best solution using the least resources can lead to conflict. In today’s post, I will focus on the most common causes of conflict and ways to mitigate them.
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Is conflict in a project bad?
Firstly, it’s important to realize that conflict is not inherently bad, as long as we assume that every member of the project team wants to achieve the project’s goal. To this end, they will propose their solutions, based on their own knowledge and experience.
Considering that each member of the project team has their own knowledge, experience, and belief that their known methods and approach are the best possible, it’s understandable why project team members want to convince others of their point of view.
The role of the Project Manager is to extract knowledge from each member of the project team and, based on the knowledge and experience of individual people, attempt to agree on one approach to carrying out project tasks.
When implementing the developed approach, it’s worth considering the best practices proposed by Agile. In practice, before the sprint, you can agree to carry out tasks in a certain way, and after the sprint, talk about what went well and what we want to improve in the next sprint. You can read more about effective retro management in the article How to conduct an effective Agile Retrospective.
It’s also worth paying attention to the project environment, i.e., people or institutions that the project will affect. These people or institutions may have different expectations for project goals than the people commissioning the project. It’s worth getting to know the opinion of such people or institutions and if expectations differ, try to find common ground and bring about a situation where the project environment will accept the way the project product will affect their daily lives.
Most common causes of conflicts in a project
If team members do not understand the full requirements of the project, this can lead to conflicts about what should be done and how. Requirements should be clearly and accurately defined at the beginning of the project. They should include detailed information about expected outcomes, functions, interfaces, performance, and other key aspects of the project.
In IT projects, we have the roles of Product Owner or Business Owner. People in these roles are responsible for exhaustively describing the project product. What end result they want to achieve. The role of the Project Manager is to extract as much information as possible from these people describing the intended goal. A good practice is to write down these requirements in a separate document, which should then be approved by the aforementioned Product Owner or Business Owner.
Once we have the written requirements for the final product, the Business Analyst comes into play, whose goal is to translate business requirements into understandable tasks for developers, along with acceptance criteria according to which tasks will be verified. This approach increases the chances of completing tasks on time with a specified quality.
Another good practice in this area is organizing meetings during which tasks are discussed. This is the best way to confirm that tasks are understandable for developers and that the proposed acceptance criteria for tasks are consistent with what the business side expects.
In a situation where requirements are not clear and well written in tasks, the chances of success in the project are slim, according to the principle: if we don’t know where we’re going, we’re going in circles.
Differences in priorities
Different teams or units may have different priorities, which can lead to conflicts about what should be done first.
It often happens that project team members participate in several projects at the same time. On paper and in theory, we can assign 0.2 FTE (Full-time equivalent) to this project and 0.5 FTE to another project, but it’s nothing new that in every project we have too little time and resources. Problems and challenges arise that we could not plan at the beginning of the project. In such a situation, people involved in several projects may carry out tasks in another project at the expense of tasks in another project.
The solution to this problem is to launch portfolio project management in the organization and assign appropriate priorities to individual projects. In a situation where one person participates in several projects, it will be easy for them to decide which project to engage in more, based on project priorities assigned by the organization.
Another aspect related to setting priorities is coordinating work between project team members. Having a map of task dependencies and efficient management of the task queue priority for implementation, and project resources can protect the team from conflict related to the fact that some part of the functionality has been implemented too quickly or too slowly, and as a result, there is no possibility of delivering the functionality expected by the client on time. The Project Manager should pay attention to the order of task execution and ensure that the order of delivery of the next components is consistent with the outlined schedule of delivery of system elements in the ongoing project.
Lack of communication
If communication in the team is not effective, it can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts. Communication, or rather its lack, next to the lack of clearly defined requirements in the project, is almost a guarantee of failure in the project. In today’s world, the level of complexity of systems, and therefore technical solutions, and the level of business requirements for the functionality of offered solutions is so high that a lack of communication or poor communication essentially makes it impossible to achieve the intended goals.
There are many ways to communicate in a project: emails, meetings, messengers, documentation, and tasks in a project management tool – essentially everyone can choose the method that suits them best. The role of the Project Manager is to reach a compromise within the project team regarding communication methods. The form of communication is secondary, but it is very important that every member of the project team knows how we communicate, where and how we can ask about things we don’t know, where and how to record progress in work, etc.
Similarly with project stakeholders. It’s important to work out a way of communicating with them. When they should expect information, what this information will contain, and in what form it will be conveyed.
Something that is a plus to the way of managing communication in the project is to work out a way of managing information that comes into the project. That is, if we have some notification to the project from the external environment, how we will manage such information in the project, who will be responsible for analyzing and further addressing the topic that was delivered to the project in the transmitted information?
More about effective communication, you can read in the article: Effective Communication of Project Issues: A Practical Guide.
Different personalities in the team can lead to conflicts if they are not properly managed. This is one of the more difficult sources of conflict for the team to manage. Whether we like it or not, communication in the team should be smooth. We don’t have to pretend to like each other, but the project goal should be a common ground for every member of the project team.
One of the first steps we can take in such a situation is to work out an agreement that everyone in the project team brings value to the project and we respect each other. If we agree on this, that we have a common goal and that everyone brings added value to the team, we can start working on how we want to communicate, so as not to annoy each other and keep focus on the goal.
Perhaps frequent meetings are not appropriate, perhaps email communication or messengers are enough, or perhaps we should not use emoticons in communication. Everyone is different, let’s give everyone a chance to say what they expect and what is unacceptable for them and try to work out common rules of cooperation on this basis, which will increase our chances of success and achieving the goal.
There is a coaching exercise where an unknown group of people meet and are given a goal to achieve. Despite the fact that such a group includes different people, with different skills and different characters, they are able to work together and achieve the intended goal. This shows that when we focus on the goal and respect others, we can achieve what we planned. It’s worth remembering this.
Improper resource management
If resources are not properly managed, it can lead to conflicts about who should do what and when. Resource management is an element of project management that belongs most to the Project Manager. There are no other areas where they can show off more than those related to proper resource management.
Appropriate prioritization of tasks, monitoring adequate workload among project team members, and assigning tasks according to experience and skills, are obvious basics. You can add to this the use of project management tools that support resource management and help track progress and respond to potential threats related to timely task execution.
Less obvious sources of conflict in a project:
In teams from different cultures, conflicts may arise from differences in communication style, approach to work, etc. Assuming that we are all interested in achieving the project goal and delivering project products on time and of a certain quality, and above all agreeing on a tolerant approach to all team members, we should consider how to facilitate integration and understanding of mutual needs and ways of working for project team members.
To start with, if possible, you can organize training during which you can discuss the way of working and expectations towards project team members through people representing different cultural circles. Such presentations can be prepared by project team members as part of self-presentation at the beginning of the project. They can also be presentations organized by external companies as part of team workshops.
Another element is to create a project environment in which, in addition to mutual respect, we communicate openly and everyone has a chance to express their opinion, being sure that it will not be badly received.
Since people from different cultural circles may have different approaches to performing tasks, participating in meetings, or conveying messages, it is worth agreeing on the rules of cooperation at the beginning of the project and preparing clear and understandable processes for everyone, which we will then stick to in the project. This approach will help us avoid potential misunderstandings that can arise from the belief that what is natural for one team member should also be natural for others, which does not necessarily have to be the case.
Stress and burnout
High levels of stress and professional burnout can lead to conflicts, as team members may struggle to cope with pressure. Here, the company’s approach to building a worker-friendly organizational culture plays a significant role. However, that’s not all.
As a Project Manager, you can positively influence how your team members perceive their work. You can show them that they have a real impact on the project’s goal and how the project’s product will affect the lives of others for whom the product is intended. A sense of agency is one of the elements that can help reduce the feeling of professional burnout.
Of course, reducing stress and burnout syndrome are not simple issues that a Project Manager can solve, but it’s worth remembering that the way you manage the project, the way you communicate, and maintaining good relationships within the project team definitely have a positive impact on team members.
Conflict situations in a project are essentially natural. The risk of conflict can be minimized through the proposed actions mentioned above, but it should be kept in mind that certain larger or smaller conflicts will still arise.
As a Project Manager, it is worth listening to both sides of the conflict and, if possible, promoting solutions that are acceptable to each party involved.
Below is a link to an interesting scientific publication on conflict management strategies.