Why Project Managers should relish conflict

I have just come away from another workshop, with another group of clever and hard working project people, in another “fast paced” global firm.

People don't always like being told to slow down!

People don’t always like being told to slow down!

Wherever I go I try to get the same simple message across:

THINK SLOW AT THE START AND MOVE FASTER LATER.

Despite Aesop and countless other story tellers before and since, we seem increasingly immune to this mantra.

The thing is, we appear to be adhering to one or both of two things:

  • We love the excitement and energy of the early beginnings.  The courting and honeymoon are after all the more viscerally stimulating parts of the marriage – right?
  • We prefer to dodge the “inconvenient truths” that abound in the formative days of a project, such as:

Why are we doing it? How big are the benefits? How hairy the risks? Do we have any idea what’s really involved? Do we have a time-machine and endless cash / resources?

To some, sadly often those “in charge”, these are annoying details to be combatted by people “lower down” who frequently lack the authority and influence to do much about them.

Naturally I am not completely refuting the requirement for raw ambition, nor am I suggesting we should paralyse innovation with analysis. What I do think would be helpful though is to adjust the timing of the difficult discussions that inevitably arise when we take on something new in complex and increasingly diverse organisations.

Let’s have the conflict, and let’s make sure we have it at the start. Simply dodging the inconvenient truths early on means they manifest later in proceedings when money has already been spent, expectations set, reputations require protecting and the ability and appetite to creatively problem solve are waning.

There are myriad tools to help project managers light the fuse of debate early on, whether it be to question the validity of the business case or lay out the true complexity of the work to be done. These have existed for years.

TKI_Table_smallWhat I think helps is a better understanding of the nature of “conflict” and a way of constructively dealing with it. To this end I have found the Thomas-Kilmann “conflict mode instrument” useful to help people get their heads around 3 key things:

  • Well-managed conflict is good, in fact necessary in innovation
  • There are different ways of dealing with it to harness the optimum outcome
  • We all have different preferences for how we deal with conflict.

Here are two resources that may provoke further thought on this. First, this great talk on the benefits of conflict and frustration by Tim Harford:

And finally, one of our own offerings in the HowNOT2 video range. Here we play out a conflict scenario in which insufficient assertiveness leads to a poor outcome for both parties.

Ralph Kilmann, The co-author of the conflict model has this to say about what we have done:

“It’s a pleasure for me to watch Michael Brown present the TKI Conflict Model in a very concise and effective manner. He provides a great overview in a short period of time. The several video scenarios that follow make it easy for people to see a variety of conflict modes in action and then enable people to reflect on why those particular approaches to conflict did not result in those actors getting their most important needs met. Discussing these scenarios in a group will help people better understand their own TKI results and how to then improve their own conflict-handling behavior.”

Ralph H. Kilmann, co-author of the TKI assessment and CEO of Kilmann Diagnostics

For the full video showing four different conflict scenes, click here.

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