Agile Methods for Dealing With Conflict

Posted by Marbenz Antonio on January 11, 2023


Even the most skilled Agile practitioners, including the Agile Alliance Board of Directors, can experience setbacks in their plan of action. In October, the Board met and Agile had the privilege of leading the meeting. They will share with you the account of how we addressed “tensions and polarities” in an Agile manner during that meeting.

The plan from which we will deviate

At the start of the meeting, the facilitator informed the board that the agenda would serve as a guide and that deviations may be made as necessary. However, it was not until the second day that it became apparent that a deviation from the agenda was required. The team was not entirely sure what the issue was but it became clear that the next planned activity would not be sufficient.

As a facilitator using the Agile method, it was discovered that when a group encounters a significant obstacle, it is necessary to shift away from focusing on tasks and instead address the group dynamics. This was put into practice when someone pointed out a high level of tension within the group, likely due to differing perspectives. While the diversity of perspectives can be beneficial, it can also lead to perceived interpersonal conflict if not properly acknowledged. The team then worked to understand how these tensions were affecting their work and how to use them to their advantage.

Exploring the tensions between two poles

Following a brief break to create a suitable plan, the Agile team introduced the concept of tension between two opposing poles. They acknowledged that there is often a range of options between perceived extremes. They identified two areas that the group was having difficulty with and wrote them on large index cards. On one side of the room, they placed a card labeled “Creating Awareness” and on the other side, they placed a card labeled “Taking Action.”

The Agile team prompted each board member to position themselves along the spectrum created by the “Creating Awareness” and “Taking Action” cards, to indicate where they currently stood regarding their experience of the meeting thus far. After everyone took their positions, they asked each person to explain their reasoning for choosing that specific spot. Next, they asked them to move to the location on the spectrum where they felt most comfortable. Through this exercise, it was observed that everyone shifted their positions, and none of them stated that their initial positions matched where they felt most comfortable.

There’s no right or wrong place to be

This exercise also served as an opportunity to highlight the importance of understanding and managing polarities such as these. The team emphasized that there is no one “right” or “wrong” place to be all the time and that effectively handling the dynamic tension between the two poles required a balance of both elements. To illustrate this point, they asked individuals whose preferred positions were close to “Creating Awareness” to explain the value they saw in “Taking Action” and vice versa. Through this discussion, it became clear that having awareness without taking action was ineffective, and that taking action without adequate understanding could be counter-productive. By understanding and respecting the different perspectives within the group, the board was able to utilize their diversity as a source of wisdom, rather than let potential conflicts dominate their work.

The Agile team facilitated another exercise using a different pair of polarities, “Working Board” and “Policy Board”. The objective of this exercise was to reflect on the role of the board in the strategic direction of the organization over the recent years, which included delegating more operational work to the managing director and focusing on setting direction, establishing boundaries, and approving high-level plans.

The team asked the board members to reflect on how they felt they had been operating during the first day of the meeting: More like a working board or a policy board? Again, the board members positioned themselves along the spectrum, and then the team debriefed. Finally, they asked the board members to indicate where they wanted to be working, and it was observed that everyone moved towards the “Policy Board” end of the spectrum. This provided insight into the fact that even if they had different perspectives on where they currently were, they all agreed on where they wanted to move forward.

The board had come to understand the underlying issues at play and was able to address and fix them directly. Additionally, the facilitator gained insights on how to adjust the remaining plan for the day. They had gained sufficient familiarity with the activity to apply it in their work.

Agile requested the board to change their focus from their initial day’s experience to the recent efforts of the Agile Alliance. They then consecutively examined three pairs.

  • “Existing Members” and “New Members”
  • “USA” and “Global”
  • “Building Community” and “Building Paid Sustaining Membership”

For each of these, Agile asked two questions:

  • Where do you think the focus of the Agile Alliance’s work has been?
  • Where do you think the focus of the Agile Alliance’s work needs to be?

The lack of precise definitions for the poles was not important, as the discussions helped the individuals comprehend the different perspectives of the ideas. The examination of different perspectives also enabled the board members to discover new insights they had not previously considered.


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