Coaching agile teams to constructively navigate conflict


On great agile teams, conflict is welcomed as a creative force. Yet whether the team welcomes it or not, conflict is certain to happen. This paper presents a useful conflict model and a set of coaching tools, such as principles for having “fierce conversations.” When used in combination, these give teams a repertoire of skills to draw upon in the midst of conflict. The first part of the paper teaches the conflict model at hand and conveys that strategies coaches can use to teach it to their teams. The second part of the paper prepares one to coach the team as conflict emerges and to help the team create an environment in which conflict is expected and seen as essential.


Conflict is unavoidable on any team, but even more so on agile teams where team members are made intentionally interdependent for the sake of coming up with remarkable results. Remarkable results are high-quality results. Therefore, navigating conflict is essential to excellent project quality management, a key Knowledge Area included in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008).

The basis for coaching an agile team to constructively navigate conflict is to give them a life raft. That life raft is a model that they can come to use time after time as conflict arises. Noted author on conflict, Speed Leas, has developed such a model (1985). It describes a path of conflict from “Level 1: Problem to Solve” to “Level 5: World War,” with each level in the path ratcheting up the intensity of the conflict.

In Navigating Conflict: A Guide to Fostering High-Performance Agile Teams (2009), Lyssa Adkins contextualizes Mr. Leas' model for use with agile teams. As a coach of such teams, you should first learn the model, then teach the model and coach what emerges.

Learn the Model

Level 1: Problem to Solve

At Level 1, conflict is life and life is conflict. This is the level of the everyday conflict—the type we experience all of the time, the type that rises and falls. At this level, people may have different opinions, misunderstanding may be in play, there may be conflicting goals or values, and team members likely will feel anxious about the conflict in the air.

When in Level 1, the team aims to determine what's awry and how to fix it. Information is freely shared and collaboration is alive. Team members use words that are clear, specific, and factual. The language is in the here and now; the team is not talking about the past. Team members check in with one another if they think that a miscommunication has just happened. You will probably notice that team members are optimistic, moving through the conflict. It's not comfortable, but it's not emotionally charged, either. This is the level of constructive disagreement.

Level 2: Disagreement

At Level 2, self-protection becomes as important as solving the problem. Team members distance themselves from one another to ensure they come out OK in the end or to establish a position for a future compromise. They may talk offline with other team members to test out strategies or seek advice and support. This is the level where good-natured joking moves toward the half-joking barb. People aren't hostile, just wary. Their language reflects this as their words move from the specific to the general. Fortifying their walls, they don't share all they know about the issues. Facts play second fiddle to interpretations, creating confusion about what's really happening.

Level 3: Contest

At Level 3, the aim is to win. There is a compounding effect as prior conflicts and problems remain unresolved. Often, multiple issues cluster into larger issues or create a “cause.” This is fertile ground for factions to emerge from and power politics to arise. In an agile team, this may happen only subtly because a hallmark of working agile is the feeling that we are all in this together. But it does happen.

People begin to align themselves with one side or the other. Emotions are used to “win” supporters for one's position. Problems and people become synonymous, opening people up to attack. As team members pay attention to building their cases, their language becomes distorted. They make overgeneralizations: “He always forgets to check in his code”; “you never listen to what I have to say.” They talk about the other side in presumptions: “I know what they think, but they are ignoring the real issue.” Views of themselves as benevolent and others as tarnished become magnified: “I am always the one to compromise for the good of the team”; “I have everyone's best interest at heart”; “they are intentionally ignoring what the customer is really saying.” Issues become either/or, and blaming flourishes. In this combative environment, talk of peace may meet resistance. People may not be ready to move beyond blaming.

Level 4: Crusade

At Level 4, resolving the situation is not enough. Team members believe the others are incapable of changing. They may believe that the only option is to remove the others from the team or get removed from the team themselves. Factions become entrenched and can even solidify into a pseudo-organizational structure. Identifying with a faction can overshadow identifying with the team as a whole. People and positions are seen as one, opening up people to attack for their affiliations rather than for their ideas. These attacks come in the form of language rife with ideology and principles, which become the focus of conversation, rather than specific issues and facts. The overall attitude is righteous and punitive.

Level 5: World War

The aim at Level 5 is to destroy the others. It's not enough that one wins; others must lose. We must make sure this horrible situation does not happen again. The only option at Level 5 is to separate the combatants (a.k.a., team members) so that they don't hurt one another. There is no hope for a constructive outcome (Adkins, 2009, pp. 31–32).

Teach the Model

Teach this model in any way that makes sense to you. Here is one tried-and-true way to teach the model and help the team consume it.

Activity 1: Create a visual of the model.

A volcano with a short description of each of the five levels of conflict works well as a visual representation of the conflict model (Exhibit 1). This particular exhibit showcases typical language one might hear at each of the levels, which can be a handy way for teams to tell at which level the conflict is at any given time (Adkins, 2009, pp. 33).

Levels of conflict with typical language

Exhibit 1: Levels of conflict with typical language.

After you teach the model, ask the team to tack the visual to the wall as a helpful reminder. It gives them the words that they need to talk about conflict constructively and to reference when conflict arises.

Activity 2: Share situations.

Next, ask people to share situations in which they have experienced various levels of conflict. The goal is to help them relate the new model to situations that have happened in the past but are still “alive” for them. This naturally leads to conversation about teams that they have participated in and gets them talking openly about how the conflict felt and how working with that team felt. Sometimes, they can relate those two things to the success (or lack of success) on the past team and see how conflict either helped or hindered them.

This is a also an opportune time for team members to learn a little bit about each other's styles of handling conflict, which will help them work together in the future. As the coach/facilitator, give them room to let the conversation go where it will, so that they can get to this personal level of sharing.

If the team does not easily share examples, there is a useful activity called “Constellation” that can prime the pump. The purpose of Constellation is to let the team members learn about one another's work preferences and desires. Used in this context, Constellation helps them see how similar or dissimilar they are to one another in their responses to conflict. Here's how Constellation works:

Start with an open space, enough room for people to walk around. Choose an object to be the center of the constellation. Anything will do—a ball, a book, a marker. Have the team members stand around the center object and tell them that you are going to read some statements to them. Let them know that for each statement, they should gravitate towards or away from the center object as if it were a scale, the closer the object, the more true that statement is for them, and the farther away it is, the less true it is for them. You might start with some simple statements to warm them up:

  • I enjoy time alone.
  • My happiest times are when I'm in nature.
  • I like to make things with my hands.
  • I thrive on being around people.

After you read the statement, each team member will move closer to or further away from the center object to mark how true or untrue the statement is in their life. They move at same time, with no one paying much attention to where anyone else is moving. Once in their chosen location, invite them to look around and see where their teammates are. Make sure they understand the purpose of this activity is to learn about one another; encourage team members to take a good look at the “constellation of people” that was just created for the statement. After a few statements like these, you are ready to move to more targeted statements about conflict, sprinkled in with more general statements about work preferences, just to keep the feeling of the activity light:

  • I avoid conflict with people who have more seniority than me.
  • I like surprises.
  • I enjoy public recognition.
  • I get quiet in uncomfortable situations.
  • I am a perfectionist.
  • I enjoy debates.
  • I like to facilitate meetings.

After reading some of the preconstructed statements, ask if the team has statements of their own that they'd like to see. Invite them to write the statements on scraps of paper for you to read. Sometimes, you get pointed statements that indicate areas of concern for team members. Other times, the statements are little “tests” one team member has for the rest, just to see how people react to certain conditions. These indicate that the team is already using the constellation to create a foundation for managing conflict when it arises later. Examples of team member–generated statements are:

  • I thrive in micromanaged environments.
  • I am always right.
  • I feel comfortable providing direct feedback.
  • I am frustrated when there is not order.
  • I am comfortable using Agile even if it lessens my personal influence or control.

Constellation will yield a better understanding of the people on a team, and will serve as a tool that they can come back to when conflict is present. It has been successful if, a month or two later, someone says, “Oh, I see why you're being so quiet. It's not that you don't care or don't have an opinion; you just shrink when people raise their voices. I remember you were almost out the door when we did the constellation about being uncomfortable in a shouting match.” This is a stellar outcome. In the training session itself, Constellation is successful if it gets them talking. This is almost sure to happen.

Activity 3: Set the expectation for coaching.

To close this session, set the expectation that you will refer to the model as you call their attention to conflict in the moment. Let them know your job is to help them navigate conflict so they can learn to do it themselves.

Coach What Emerges

After teaching the levels of conflict, the job is to coach what emerges. If the team is in conversation about a goal they share in common, conflict will certainly arise. When it does, wait to see if the team will de-escalate themselves. See if they can back it down from Level 3 to Level 1, for example. If so, step in as they de-escalate and ask if they just noticed that they were in conflict. Refer to the model tacked to the wall and ask some thought-provoking questions: “What conflict level did you get to just then?” “Were you able to de-escalate the conflict?” “What happened that caused you to de-escalate?” They will usually be able to identify something that “broke the spell” and allowed the de-escalation. For example, they might say, “Jason cracked a joke, and that allowed us to take the pressure off. After that, we realized we were getting into a contest, so I guess we just backed off because that wasn't helping us get anywhere.”

If the team is in conflict with no sign of de-escalation, you may choose to step in and ask these simple questions: “What level of conflict are you at right now?” “Is this a useful place to be?” Then, let them decide how to de-escalate so that they can get constructive again.

As the coach, your main purpose is to model the behavior that they can use to manage conflict themselves. You know you have been successful when you hear a team member ask the rest of the team, “Are we in conflict? It sure feels that way to me. What level do you think we are at?”

Be Ready for the Results

The purpose behind teaching teams about the conflict model is to give them a tool to help them de-escalate situations for themselves. Perhaps any team armed with an understanding of the levels of conflict could use this tool to de-escalate. To judge this for yourself, consider this real-life tale of two teams, one agile the other plan-driven, who received the same training in conflict navigation.

The Agile Team

The agile team in this tale believes that Courage, Respect, Focus, Commitment, and Openness, the Scrum values, are the foundation that will help them achieve remarkable results together (Schwaber & Beedle, 2001, pp. 147–154). These values are alive for them. They are not afraid to open up and let their guards down with each other because they know that everyone on the team is “in it together,” working toward a shared commitment. They certainly have conflict. That conflict often leads to open sharing and discussion of ideas and opinions. The team members are willing to call out when they are getting away from the problem to solve. They say things such as “I'm getting onto a crusade here, let me take a breather” or “you know, I'm getting competitive about this…what's important is that we focus on the problem.” They have learned to de-escalate by themselves because they overtly hold the same values and hold each other to living those values.

The Plan-Driven Team

The plan-driven team in this tale is not working toward a shared goal. They are co-located, but they are performing tasks that are individualized. They do not have the foundation of a shared set of values. People on the team are guarded, trust is not evident, and they don't share information or opinions broadly as a team. When conflict presents itself, they know it's happening but don't feel comfortable calling it out. Even with awareness of the levels of conflict, the team is unable to de-escalate to Level 1 because they don't call out the “elephant in the room”…even with the visual of the conflict levels hanging right there on the wall.

The tale of these two teams illustrates the importance of a strong foundation from which to navigate conflict. The agile team paid attention to the Scrum values and, from this, has a built-in support system for navigating conflict. Keeping these alive allows them to harness conflict and turn it into something constructive. To create such a support system, one must first attend to fertile ground.

Create Fertile Ground for Navigating Conflict

Navigating conflict will not feel natural to most people on a team. This is evidenced by the common situation on many teams where conflict hangs so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife. Yet, when the same team is asked to rate themselves on characteristics of high performance, they give themselves top marks. What's the truth here?

Unless the ground has been already broken, it may be difficult to determine the truth. Two ways to break ground and create a fertile environment for navigating conflict are to coach the team to actively use team norms and to engage in “fierce conversations.”

Let Team Members Express Their Interaction Desires Through Team Norms

“Team norms” can be powerful and meaningful for the team, if care is taken in creating them. The best team norms are more than stand-up time, core hours, and whether or not people can eat in the room. Yes, those may be on the list, but the team norms that are a beacon that the team “can use in a storm” are ones that express: Values, Rules for Living Together, and Logistics (Adkins, 2007).

To this list, we now add conflict interaction. When the team gets to creating this part of their team norms, we can coach them to consider these additional questions:

  • How do we want to be together when conflict arises?
  • In what ways will we call out conflict “in the moment”?
  • How will we get back to “the dream” of what we want to accomplish together when we are neck-deep in conflict?
  • Under what circumstances would we be willing to call it quits as a team?

These are no lighthearted questions and, as such, may open up some real dialogue. Better to address them at the outset of a team's formation, when team norms are typically created, than in the maelstrom of conflict.

Having the team's norms hanging on the team room wall is a palpable reminder of the team's intentions for working well together. When a team norm is violated, anyone on the team can question the usefulness of the norm (perhaps they've grown past it) or help the violator to come back to the intention. This is just one way that teams can create fertile ground for navigating conflict. Another is having “fierce conversations.”

Let Team Members Have Fierce Conversations

Part of coaching what emerges and leveraging team norms is giving the team explicit permission to engage in fierce conversations. In Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time (2007), author Scott is careful to define “fierce” as “robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager, unbridled, uncurbed, untamed. In its simplest form, a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real” (Scott, 2007, pp. 237–239).

Teams under the intense pressure of the short sprint and a shared team commitment to making production-ready product need to make it real—and fierce. To do less is a waste of time and energy, yet many agile teams tread the ground of limp conversations or worse, unreal ones. Making conversations real is an imperative to navigating conflict well. Using the seven principles of fierce conversations can pump up the team's interactions until they hit the “real zone.”

Principle 1: Master the courage to interrogate reality.

No plan completely survives its collision with reality its collision with reality, and reality has a habit of shifting, at work and at home. Markets and economies change, requiring shifts in strategy. People change and forget to tell each other—colleagues, customers, spouses, friends. We are all changing all the time. Not only do we neglect to share this with others, we are skilled at masking it even to ourselves.

Principle 2: Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real.

While many fear the “real,” it is the unreal conversation that should scare us to death. Unreal conversations are expensive, for the both the individual and the organization. No one has to change, but everyone has to have the conversation. When the conversation is real, the change occurs before the conversation is over. You will accomplish your goals in large part by making every conversation you have as real as possible.

Principle 3: Be here, prepared to be nowhere else.

Our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time. While no single conversation is guaranteed to transform a company, a relationship, or a life, any single conversation has the potential to do so. Speak and listen as if this conversation is the most important conversation you will ever have with this person. It could be. Participate as if it matters. It does.

Principle 4: Tackle your toughest challenge today.

Burnout doesn't occur because we're solving problems; it occurs because we've been trying to solve the same problem over and over. “The problem named is the problem solved.” Identify and then confront the real obstacles in your path. Stay current with the people important to your success and happiness. Travel light, agenda-free.

Principle 5: Obey your instincts.

Don't just trust your instincts—obey them. Your radar screen works perfectly. It's the operator who is in question. An intelligence agent is sending you messages every day, all day. Tune in. Pay attention. Share these thoughts with others. What we label as illusion is the scent of something real coming close.

Principle 6: Take responsibility for your emotional wake.

For a leader, there is no trivial comment (and everyone on an agile team plays the leader at one time or another). Something you don't remember saying may have had a devastating impact on someone who looked to you for guidance and approval. The conversation is not about the relationship; the conversation is the relationship. Learning to deliver the message without the load allows you to speak with clarity, conviction, and compassion.

Principle 7: Let silence do the heavy lifting.

When there is simply a whole lot of talking going on, conversations can be so empty of meaning that they crackle. Memorable conversations include breathing space. Slow down the conversation, so that insight can occur in the space between words and you can discover what the conversation really wants and needs to be about (Scott, 2007, pp. 114–139)

As an agile coach, imbibe these principles and live them in your interactions—in every conversation you have. Teach by example. Get these principles seated in your bones and when fierce conversations start to become second nature to you, teach the same principles to the team.

Wrapping it up

There is no way to wrap the topic of conflict up in a tidy box with a perfectly tied ribbon on top; conflict itself defies this! Using the conflict model along with the teaching and coaching guidance found in this paper, however, will help you get started using conflict constructively with teams. Know that getting started is the most important step. The team will take the rest of the steps themselves with your assistance and patience.


Adkins, L. (2009, April). Navigating conflict: A guide to fostering high-performance agile teams. Better Software, 11(3), 30–34.

Adkins, L. (2007, December). Creating meaningful team norms. Retrieved July 7, 2009, from

Leas, S. (1985). Moving your church through conflict. Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Schwaber, K., & Beedle, M. (2001). Agile software development with Scrum. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Scott, S. (2007). Fierce conversations: Achieving success at work and in life one conversation at a time [Kindle Version]. London: Berkley.

© 2009, Lyssa Adkins and Kristen Blake
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida



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