Conflict is inevitable in project management.
Here’s a great guest post from Bruce Harpham, a Canadian writer on leadership for project managers at ProjectManagementHacks.com, a resource for growing IT project managers.
As a people discipline, project managers rely on others to get work done.
Every person on a project has their own goals and interests; conflict is guaranteed to occur even in well managed teams.
Conflict can result from personality differences, economic constraints and many other factors.
Did you know that conflict is considered necessary in the business world?
In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, American management consultant Patrick Lencioni argues “fear of conflict” causes dysfunction and prevents teams from achieving results.
Consider the world of science – new theories and experiments are constantly critiqued and evaluated.
Without this robust debate and conflict, progress would slow down dramatically.
The business world is no different – we need new and challenging ideas as much as scientists.
Origins of project conflict
There are many types of project management conflicts in the workplace.
For example, the project manager and sponsor may fight over budget.
Late or poor quality deliverables cause conflict because other team members have to work overtime to get the project back on schedule.
When companies submit competing bids for projects, pressure to win the contract creates conflict.
Project managers also have the responsibility to manage the expectations and competing priorities of stakeholders.
The legal department may ask for another week to reflect the contract while engineering demands immediate sign off so they can receive new equipment from the supplier.
Project managers have to use their judgement and the discipline’s best practices to resolve such disagreements.
Four solutions to project conflicts
1. Set ground rules for conflict
Tell your project team that conflict is expected on the project.
Remind them that each person has the responsibility to handle conflict in a professional manner.
After all, project failure due to conflict will reflect badly on the entire team, especially the project manager.
For best results, set the ground rules for handling conflict at the beginning of the project.
2. Consider history when seeking to solve a conflict
When you see conflict on a project, consider the history of the people before you propose solutions.
For example, two stakeholders may have a history of disagreement over numerous projects so the conflict you face may be very challenging to resolve.
For further guidance on how approaching conflict, consider reading Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, a book based on extensive research at Harvard University.
3. Use conflict as an opportunity to develop new solutions
Consider the following situation where two team members present conflicting solutions.
Jane, a procurement specialist, argues that your project should purchase a software application to execute order processing.
If this solution is selected, Jane argues the project team will be able to focus on other tasks, and Jane can use her negotiating skills to impress management.
John, a software developer, argues the team can save money by creating the software.
John points out that his staff are more than capable of building the application, and John will have the chance to shine as the IT lead.
Instead of simply choosing one solution, the project manager can use the conflict as an opportunity to develop a new solution.
In this case, the project manager proposes using existing software to fulfill orders - which John will have to adapt - and asks Jane to procure a QA testing contract.
In this case, both project team members have the opportunity to use their expertise while continuing to move the project forward.
4. Use power to resolve conflict when there is high risk or danger
From time to time, the project manager has to exercise their role power to avoid high risk and danger.
In a construction project, the risk of injury is high.
In that case, the project manager has to insist that all project team members complete safety training and use company mandated safety equipment.
Using power to solve conflicts is effective when used sparingly.
Think of your role power as a finite resource – if you use too much of it, you may lose credibility with your project team.