This is the second in a series of posts around DevOps culture and lessons learned from Patrick Lencioni’s leadership book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team - A Leadership Fable. The first post, 5 Dysfunctions of a DevOps Team: Absence of Trust, explored how trust is the underpinning of adapting your team’s culture to transform for the DevOps movement. Without trust your DevOps team has little chance for authentic communication and collaboration. Now I would like to explore the second dysfunction of a team - fear of conflict.
Fear of Conflict
"The second dysfunction is a fear of conflict among team members. All great relationships require productive conflict in order to grow. Unfortunately, conflict is considered taboo in many situations, especially at work. And the higher you go up the management chain, the more you find people spending inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to avoid the kind of passionate debates that are essential to any great team."
Teams that trust one another are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decisions that are key to the organization's success. The sole purpose of engaging in productive conflict on a DevOps team is to produce the best possible solution in the shortest amount of time. Teams that demonstrate this sort of teamwork typically discuss and resolve issues more quickly and completely than others, and they emerge from heated debates with no residual feelings or collateral damage, but with an eagerness and readiness to take on the next important issue.
Take a moment, close your eyes, and play back your last change authorization board (CAB) meeting, sprint review or daily stand up. Were there any tensions, debates or disagreements on important issues and how were those handled? Were they dealt with head-on or avoided? If you did not retreat from healthy debate and the conversation was done in a productive manner then kudos to all of you. If that wasn’t the case, however, then how can your DevOps team begin to put the critical topics on the table for discussion without wasting time and turning a negative into a positive? Here are a couple ideas I’ve seen work in teams that want to cut through the BS and make conflict more common and productive:
1. Turn complaints into requests. Often times when we approach a colleague about an issue, we focus heavily on what we do NOT want. For instance, “I can’t stand it when you throw a bunch of code over the wall at me and expect me to support it without the proper tests and procedures.” Instead, try turning your complaint into a positive by making a request. If your developers often throw stuff over the wall to the operations team, you could say “Could you give me a heads up next time before you finish your deployment? I want to be sure we can support it.” It is a small nuance, but the tone and tenor of handling these types of conflicts will go a long way to reduce frustrations, help stop the IT blame game and help you have productive conflict.
2. Real-time permission. In the heat of the battle, there is a tendency for some people to retreat from the conversation as they get uncomfortable with the level of discord. Lencioni recommends an effective solution is to empower all team members to coach one another not to retreat from healthy debate by interrupting them to remind them that what they are doing is necessary in order to give the participants the confidence to continue. So the next time that CAB meeting gets seemingly out of hand, it is alright to take a break from the action and encourage engagement on the issue so that it gets resolved for the betterment of the team.
Here’s the thing - leadership and conflict go hand-in-hand. Leadership is a full-contact sport, and if you cannot or will not address conflict in a healthy, productive fashion, you should not be in a leadership role. Don’t fear conflict; embrace it – it’s your job. While you can try and avoid conflict (bad idea), you cannot escape conflict. The fact of the matter is conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. It will find you whether you look for it or not. The ability to recognize conflict, understand the nature of conflict, and to be able to bring swift and just resolution to conflict will serve you well as a leader and help your DevOps movement be successful and productive for all.