ScrumMaster: Mastering conflict

Although conflict sometimes leads to violence, it also leads to the development of new ideas and solutions without descending into violence. One of the key advantages of many contemporary democratic societies is their ability to manage conflict without escalation of violence. This concept is largely built on a premise that conflict is unavoidable, and even good, but that violence should be avoided. In an organisational context violence rarely takes physical form, but is rather more passive and could be better defined as conflict. It manifests itself in terms of refusal to cooperate and mobbing as well as failure to deliver necessary preconditions for focused work (e.g.. information). System inherent conflict management – or conflict navigation – is key to ensuring that problems are identified and addressed in order for conflict to have a constructive focus.
Scrum recognises the importance of conflict, and the scrum master role is very much like the one of a conflict ‘navigator’. The scrum master is required to establish a system which recognises and encourages engaging in conflict, facilitating it and navigating through it. Indeed, the scrum master working in an environment where change is needed often takes the role of a conflict initiator, but needs to be wary of how to navigate it to support the change process.

Creating a trustful atmosphere

Considering that teams are often composed of people with different personal characteristics and different experiences, there will be those who are inclined to try new approaches and those who will be more cautious or even rejective of new ideas. Introducing any new management style will lay down the groundwork for conflict. In this instance the scrum master needs to be able to build confidence with her/his team and an understanding that Scrum is worthwhile trying out, but that the process requires commitment. While defining and removing obstacles is a key part of the scrum process, it is important to define ‘conflict’ lines that the team will engage in with the agents/structures that are creating, or are themselves the obstacles. To be the change agent, the scrum master looks to create an atmosphere where this ‘conflict’ can be outspoken and defined in order to find new solutions and improvements, e.g. an impediment backlog. Therefore, as such, it is her/his role to instigate conflict, and as a navigator find ways to solve this on a systemic or interpersonal level.
The reason why a scrum master benefits from conflict (at internal or organisational levels) is the ability to show that he or she can conceptualise a road map and devote efforts towards solving it. By engaging in and being able to solve problems the scrum master introduces not only new ways of thinking, but also builds confidence in the team while being able to show that values such as openness, courage, respect and commitment work for the benefit of the team. The tricky bit is knowing how to be a skilful conflict navigator and choosing conflicts that will build confidence, which subsequently allows for more complex conflicts to be addressed and solved. The goal is for the team to reach a level of openness that teams see ‘conflicts’ as being a constructive part of a development process. By building a ‘system’ and starting with gaining trust and confidence of the team, the scrum master will transform an ordinary workplace into a place where individuals are valued and motivated to move forward. Ultimately, the scrum master will have laid down the groundworks for building a real team.

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Tihomir Vollmann-Popovic Tihomir Vollmann-Popovic


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