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Friday, December 28, 2012

Conflict, My Friend

           Embrace conflict. Encourage conflict. Demand conflict.

          Wait a minute. That whole idea is absurd. Conflict is at the least a distraction, and at worst severely destructive, in projects and in the everyday workplace.

Angry argument, arrogant bullying, sarcastic name-calling are among the behaviors that contort organizational cohesion and inhibit individual initiative.

Bystanders may try to intervene, sometimes to be rewarded by becoming targets themselves, sometimes then stung into purposeless and destructive exchanges that make things worse.

At the least, continuing belligerence creates a tense atmosphere that severely reduces productivity and induces misery. People dread going in to work in the morning, and work all day with their heads down.

So mostly we make a practice of avoiding conflict. We phrase our suggestions and responses in ways that make sure feathers aren’t ruffled. No point in stirring up trouble. And when a bad idea is on the table, we just leave it for someone else to point out the flaws. Why get into a hassle?

As a result, a lot of good possibilities never get a real hearing, and a lot of faulty policies stumble and collapse in full view of people who knew better from the beginning. Those kinds of shortfalls create a loser culture, with a descending spiral of morale and imagination.

Peace and quiet create a safe haven for mediocrity and systemic failure. Management’s attempts at inspirational pronouncements and exhortations are empty rhetoric; they fail to move the passive mass from its dedication to safe routine.

This is fatal for organizational health, and certainly for project management. The fundamental reason for project management is that complex, risky innovations must be pulled off.

For a project that has any heft at all, you need to gather good people, competent people, committed people, passionate people. You can’t achieve something that’s never been done before if all you have working on it are people disciplined to never stick their heads up.

Actually, it’s not that hard to find the right people. Just about everyone is capable of eager, imaginative, assertive creative behavior, when they’re not inhibited by some kind of threat.

With a little effort and a modest amount of imagination, anyone can get some really great brainstorms going. The fun of knocking over barriers can be a mind-expanding exercise.

The true project leader understands this.

An intense enjoyment results from the meaningful, creative and productive employment of one’s knowledge and experience in a brand-new enterprise. Doesn’t matter how it comes out. But, if there also is a team achievement of a difficult and complex goal, one’s sense of worth expands immensely.

The process demands conflict, if it is to succeed. You can’t assemble such people in sufficient number to accomplish anything without knowing they will refuse to march in lockstep.

Really good contributors are superior because they have devoted themselves to excellence, have invested effort in learning how to do what they do, have put in a lot of hours at unrewarded labor to make sure they got where they had committed themselves to go.

They don’t go along. They need to be convinced. In the process, they must be heard. It can be an unlovely process as it evolves, but its surface negative energy should not be misunderstood. While these folks are good in outcome, they can be inelegant along the way.

So you stick with it. You, the project manager, make sure they take it seriously. You don’t consider a discussion complete until all key parties, whatever their communication preferences, have fully and honestly invested their takes.

It will be conflicted. It will not be particularly pleasant to undergo, or to witness. The competent project manager, though, will make sure it happens. This is how they work their way to commitment. The alternative is a pleasant journey to project failure.

Managing positive conflict requires that, having surfaced the disagreement between or among creative people, the leader guides it toward integration rather than personal combat.

It can be a nuanced management demand, considering the personalities likely to be involved. It requires advanced communication skills, which the competent project manager makes it his/her business to practice to a high level.

The project manager knows that, without that open disagreement (sometimes quite emotional), the shining new summit will never be mounted. The contest of ideas must happen, but it must not destroy. It must be guided to a productive outcome.

This is the ultimate challenge for the professional project manager. It’s cultural and psychological, not technical.

Embrace conflict. Encourage conflict. Demand conflict.

          And, of course, manage conflict.

Conflict will never be your most enjoyable traveling companion, but it can be your best friend.



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