A conflict isn’t always a bad thing – Part 4

"Implementation is the last 99%" – Tom Peters

Finally – the GSD perspective (GSD = ‘Getting Stuff Done’). When we have a closer look at the workplace dynamics that are in play when projects and departments are getting work done (aka: ‘implementation’), there is a remarkable phenomenon: conflict and tension seem to be part of the job whenever we approach a milestone or a deadline.

Like a law of nature, conflict is inherent to implementation because people with different assumptions are about to deliver the exact same piece of work. As long as that piece of work is a verbal reality (i.e.: an idea, a project plan or a blueprint) consensus is abundant. So far the honeymoon phase.

The next project step is to build a tangible prototype or to launch a pilot. After that, it gets worse in terms of conflicts and clashes because gradually more people get involved in order to test the stuff, in order to be trained or just in order to allow the members of the team they are leading to free up time for participating to your project. And these people come from different backgrounds; they did not travel the same road as you did over the past months… so the next thing you know is that they start asking silly, annoying and (seemingly) irrelevant questions.

Basically, people in projects clash on two levels:
1. first, as things get tangible, people clash on the concrete level ("What does the solution look like and how will it work?"): the path from abstract to concrete is a bumpy road to the same extent as expectations, assumptions and interpretation of the project mismatch. This is exactly the bumpy road that Tuckman describes in the "forming – storming – norming – performing" model.

2. Second, as things move forward, people clash on the alpha level (i.e.: in the biological sense). The basic concern here is: "How do I contribute to this solution? / What is my role?" Here as well, expectations, assumptions and interpretations of the project hierarchy are often mismatching. Mind you: this has very little to do with the project organization chart on paper – I am talking hormones here: testosterone and estrogens to be precise.

To summarize, here is a simple example of a project setting:
– Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the project team) are about to purchase a ball (the project goal);
– They carefully and successfully planned the purchasing process (going to the store together before closing time);
– They may even be managing a budget.

So far, the project is a verbal reality and they are about to find out the mismatch on the concrete level as soon as they see one another heading for a different part of the store (the basketball department versus the softball department): "Hey, this is not what I meant!". On the alpha level, the other one may respond: "Who’s in charge here anyway?"

The point to remember here is that this conflict is not a bad thing. It is just an indication that people are delivering concrete things on that project. And the opposite is also true: beware of conflict-free projects; chances are that they score poorly on the implementation level.