Project Management Institute

Resolving conflicts


by Paula K. Martin and Karen Tate, PMP, Contributing Editors

CONFLICT OCCURS IN EVERY PROJECT. Some conflict is productive; some is not. Whenever possible seek to prevent unnecessary conflicts. When this fails, then choose the most appropriate approach for getting the conflict resolved.

First, let's talk about conflict prevention. Here are some tactics for preventing unproductive conflict:

img Make sure everyone fully understands the purpose or business needs that are driving the project. Petty conflicts can be avoided when people are focused on a strong common goal.

img Use team-based brainstorming tools to make sure everyone's ideas have been heard and recorded. Examples of teambased brainstorming tools are mind mapping, affinity diagramming, and traditional brainstorming.

img Use team-based analysis tools that lead a group to natural consensus. Team participation in the decision-making process will create buy-in once a decision is reached. Examples of team-based analysis tools are root-cause analysis, SWOT, force-field analysis, impact/probability grid, and the MartinTate decision matrix.

Various methods are available to help resolve conflicts in the workplace. Here's our preferred method.

When a conflict does arise, it is time to decide which conflict resolution approach makes the most sense. One option is to avoid the conflict entirely. Use this if both parties have very little interest in the outcome of the conflict. Another option is to yield. This is appropriate if one side cares greatly about the outcome and the other side has very little interest. The party with little interest yields to the party with a greater interest.



Paula Martin and Karen Tate, co-founders of project management training and consulting firm MartinTate, specialize in team-based project management. They are also the authors of the Project Management Memory Jogger (available through the PMI Bookstore). A project plan template can be found on their website at They can be reached at +513-563-3010 or +877-563-3010. Comments on this column should be directed to

What if both parties care about the outcome, but it's not absolutely critical to either side? In that case compromise is the best solution. Both parties agree to accept less than they were asking for in order to resolve the conflict quickly and fairly. However, compromise is not an appropriate resolution if the conflict is critical to the project and/or to both concerned parties. In this case it's worth taking the time to enter into a collaborative conflict resolution process that seeks to identify a win/win solution, a solution that will satisfy both parties’ needs.

MartinTate's collaborative conflict resolution method has five stages. In the first stage, a conflict statement is written and each party's position (preferred approach to resolution) is recorded on a self-sticky note and posted on the wall. In the second stage, a common goal for the resolution of the conflict is agreed to by both parties. An example of a common goal might be that both parties agree that the solution should not add time to the project schedule.

In stage three the needs of both parties are explored. Person A asks Person B to identify the needs she is trying to satisfy through her stated position. Person A records each of Person B's stated needs. Person A then asks Person B to rate each of her needs on a scale of 1–10, with 10 being the highest level need. After this is completed, the roles are reversed and Person B interviews Person A regarding his needs. They then identify any needs they have in common. Finally, they check to see if the needs assessment can help them identify an obvious solution to the stated problem.

If no solution presents itself, we move on to stage four in which both parties identify the assumptions they hold related to their stated positions. These assumptions are then examined to determine if more information needs to be brought into the process to gain clarity on any assumptions that might not be true.

In stage five, the two parties use the information gathered in the needs assessment and assumption clarification stages to brainstorm creative ways to resolve their conflict. If several possible solutions are identified, analysis tools can be used to narrow down the choice to a single option.

OBVIOUSLY, COLLABORATIVE CONFLICT resolution takes time and is not an appropriate option for every conflict situation. Start with prevention. If that fails, then pick the conflict approach that matches the situation at hand. ■

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

February 2001 PM Network



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