Friday, August 19, 2016

Conflict, Growth, and Turning Pain into Growth

A co-worker of mine has a phrase up on his whiteboard.  “There is no growth without conflict.”  He loves that quote and works with the people in his influence to get them to embrace conflict as a healthy thing.  We’re not talking knock-down, drag-out fights, we are talking rational debate and maybe a bit of passion for the work.  My friend has embraced conflict, but so many of us spend time trying to avoid it in our work lives and in our private lives.  As a result, we may be restricting our own growth as employees and as human beings.

It is very natural to want to avoid “pain’.  Even non-physical conflict can result in painful feelings.  We get that twist in our gut, that headache, that tension in the back.  We all know those feelings, but we may have not put them to work for ourselves.  We may not have recognized those feelings as an invitation to be open and honest about why we are feeling those things and openly and honestly working through them internally or with the people with whom you are in conflict.  Because we gloss over those feelings, they can stay with us, festering and building up until you just can’t take it anymore and a really big painful event erupts to throw things completely off kilter.  You may have experienced this in your work-life, when you’ve flown off the handle after some seemingly small point of contention sends you over the edge.  We have all felt this happen in our personal lives, I’m sure as well.  Instead of avoiding that pain and paying dearly for its cathartic release, I suggest letting it trickle out as it comes up.  Speak your mind and communicate with compassion and honesty in every setting, even at work.

When you fail to express your disagreement during your work-life, you are generally giving in to someone, like your boss or a team member.  When you fail to rationally express your disagreement, you are hurting yourself, the team, and the company.  What if your idea really is better?  What if both your ideas stink, but there is a better one out there that you can find together?  You’ll never know, if you don’t express yourself.  Innovation definitely will not happen if you keep things to yourself.
In the business world when we are developing solutions to problems, whether they be in people or electronic processes, it’s very, very important to speak out if you don’t agree with things that are being accepted as true or if you disagree with a solution.  Even if you are on the business side and you’re disagreeing with a technical resource or a superior in your organization, your disagreement is important.  There is a reason you are feeling “pain”.  It may be that you see a fault in their logic.  It may be that you know how the people in the field work and the proposed solution will cause too much disruption and not enough value for the company to invest in it.  You may have a better idea, you may have a worse idea, but you will never know unless you bring it up.
Tension between the business and technology implementation teams is inevitable.  We’ve probably all seen instances where our business sponsors have asked for a warp capable starship level product but have given you the timeline for building a canoe.  (Hyperbole for fun and illustrative purposes).  That is frustrating and aggravating, if we are honest.  Maybe the timeline is there, but the budget for R&D isn’t.  Whatever the conflict, it is up to the technical team to speak out about it.  The business may not be aware of the complexities of what they’re asking for.  It’s just a warp drive starship.  It’s just a website.  They may not understand that the security behind the site and authorization model for the different roles is going to take a long time to work out and to program and test. You as a technical team member must make sure they understand the pain point.  If they do, then they can rationally think things through and perhaps change the budget, give you more time, or start scaling back on their initial expectations.  They may be fine with a canoe at the outset.  They may be fine with the reduced, minimal feature set to start out with.  You won’t know if you don’t tell them your pain and explain why you’re experiencing it.

As a business analyst, I have frequently come to development teams with the business’ requirements only to be told that can’t happen or that what the business is asking for is silly or not needed.  Talk about a pain.  As the representative of the business, it’s extremely important that I understand the pain points that are driving the technology request and the value that is behind those requests.  I need to understand what is essential and what is negotiable.  I need to be able to articulate that to the development team and work with them to relieve the pain they’re feeling so that we can come to an agreement on the solution, given the needs, resources, time, and technical architecture we must work within.  All that discussion, all that conflict will cause us to re-examine things, ask tough questions and generally come up with an innovative solution that will benefit everyone involved.  You won’t get that innovation if you don’t speak up for the business.  You won’t get that if you fail to speak up for the technical team.  Rational, open, and honest conflict will pay off.
Do you notice how I’m always using the words rational, open, and honest?  These three features define a healthy debate.  Being rational is essential.  The word, rational, is defined as “being based upon or in accordance with reason or logic”.  Rational conflict does not become personal.  It is not about you or them.  Rational conflict looks at the facts, the requirements, the environment and all the other factors that surround a project.  There may be some gut feelings involved from time to time, but in general, that conflict and gut feeling are based upon what is known and what the future state must be in order to realize value from the work you will be putting in. 

Open and honest debate means that you are open to other ideas and express your ideas in ways that allow for debate, allow for you to be wrong, and allow for the middle ground.  Being open means you put all your ideas, concerns, and solutions on the table.  It also means being vulnerable.  Learning cannot happen unless you open yourself to the idea that you may be wrong, the other guy may be right or there is a better solution somewhere in between.  You may take a hit on your personal pride, if your reasoning is flawed or you’re basing your argument on a fallacious assumption, but how can you find out if you’re wrong and grow as a result of learning if you don’t allow yourself to be open to that possibility?  Sure, it will sting for a while, but you will get over it.  Other people will forgive you for speaking your mind and being wrong, especially if you’re open to saying “Oh, I’m wrong.  I didn’t think about that.”  In fact, your “street cred” will likely go up as people gain respect for you.  You will also be reinforcing an environment where people can be open about their conflicts and therefore encouraging personal and team growth.  Honesty is crucial here as well.  As business analysts and as human beings, we should never play games to make a political or personal point.  Being honest about a disagreement allows that pain and conflict to come to light and be addressed.  Being dishonest and creating conflict is definitely a path to destruction but being dishonest to avoid conflict is also a short road to an even bigger conflict down the road.  If you know something is wrong, if you see a flaw in logic, even if the gut feel is wrong, you should express yourself openly, honestly and rationally so that everything can be worked out.  Innovation is going to happen in that working out of the conflict.  Growth will happen when you realize that you were both a little wrong and you find the way to make each of you all right.

I’d like to close with a personal story about learning to embrace change.  I have worked on projects where everything seems to be going fine.  You’re chugging along and suddenly, something fundamental to the project changes.  More often than not, the timeline contracts.  Sometimes resources are diverted to other, hotter projects.  Whatever the reason, things are suddenly up in the air.  I used to waste time griping and wailing about the change.  I’d be sullen and quiet about all my concerns about it. I would start to feel awful about my workplace and my fellow co-workers because I blamed them for the pain of the upheaval.  Sometimes I got to say I told you so, when things went wrong, but that was a hollow victory.  When I learned to speak up an say my piece and take my ego out of the equation, I found that I had a lot less pain, a lot more respect for myself and others and I really believe that I and my coworkers started to benefit from my speaking out.  Now, I still have to coach myself to speak up in some situations, but it is much easier now.  I know that my rational, open, honest feedback will serve a purpose and build value for me, my team and my company. 

I swiped the image at the start of this article from Tim Rettig's excellent post about what to do when a team is in conflict.  He gives excellent advice on how you can rationally come to a solution.  Read that one at

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