Software Quality

May 11, 2013

Process Conflict – a Manager’s role to resolve

Filed under: Management — David Allen @ 9:21 pm

In a workplace, conflict between people arises for many reasons.  It results in frustration and unhappiness for the people and poor performance for the organization.  In many cases, we expect employees to avoid and resolve conflict on their own. In those cases, managers are responsible for identifying when employees have trouble managing conflict and helping staff learn to resolve conflicts.

However, there are several cases in which the employees cannot reasonably be expect to resolve the conflict on their own. These are cases in which the manager must take an active part in the solution.  This article discusses one such source of conflict and how it can be easily remedied and prevented.  The source of human conflict described here is due to process conflicts. It has many possible causal factors and many possible solutions. A problem map of these factors is shown below.

For those unfamiliar with such diagrams, see the original problem map which includes tips on how to read one:

In the cases shown in the problem map, the manager is often required to provide training or process changes in order to create an environment in which workers can work with less conflict. Without manager intervention, the conflicts become frustrating for the workers and may recur again and again.  It is not uncommon for employees to make unfair assumptions and think their colleague just has a “bad attitude” when in fact, they are simply operating by another process and those processes are in tension.

Managers who understand these problems and apply the solutions can continually adjust the policies to reduce conflict and make it easier for staff to work together.  Managers can go even further and teach these ideas to their staff so the staff can understand when a conflict is a process conflict. In such cases, they get less frustrated because they know that they can escalate the problem to their manager who will work with other managers to resolve the process tension.  Short-term solutions may be negotiating exceptions. Long-term solutions may involve  collaboration across departments. Such cross-departmental collaborations naturally require more effort and time than localized process changes that can be unilaterally decreed by a single manager.  In any case, it is unlikely that an organization will accidentally work in harmony without managers who continually and deliberately tune the processes for harmony.

Sources of interpersonal conflict at work

And of course, there is a rich body of literature on how to manage conflict among people in the general case. That is the first node in the diagram and you can seek out those resources for those issues. This brief article simply clarifies when process is the problem, a manager can solve it.


  1. I find it curious that in a manufacturing organization managers clearly understand the mandate to remove conflict and improve the process, yet in the land of software manufacturing this concept seems alien.

    Comment by johnlomnicki — May 12, 2013 @ 7:07 am

  2. Agreed, John. I still feel like our industry (software development) is in its infancy. Perhaps there is lots of awareness of process in our field. But everyone is so crazed with deadlines and emergencies that we lack the time needed for thoughtful planning and follow-through. This “get it done fast and we will fix it later” mentality is widespread.

    Comment by David Allen — May 12, 2013 @ 7:21 am

    • I often wonder if the pressure asserted on the development areas is really just the way a poorly run business deflects attention. People can get so caught up in measured project progress based on estimates, but few executives are self aware as to suggest a piece of software could have started development years earlier.

      Comment by johnlomnicki — May 12, 2013 @ 9:04 am

  3. I see that there is a path for not liking a formal process based on it being too complex but not explicitly a path for not liking a formal process because it is not suiting the business need. So if there exists a process that a person both understands and does not think is overly complex, it is possible that they still might reject the process because it is not solving a root problem… or really any other reason. I don’t bring this up solely because I find process to often be misguided, but because I think this type of process conflict is part of the cycle of process innovation. Just trying to go around the rules is one thing, trying to remake the rules is something else. Of course there are at least a dozen ways that can lead to conflict.

    Comment by Uriah — May 12, 2013 @ 9:51 am

    • Good catch. I will revise the problem map to reflect “processes do not appear to be efficient or effective for the intended goals”. I will associate the obvious solution of revising the processes. In fact, I think that many an innovator has been mistakenly labeled a cowboy because their intentions were misunderstood. A manager who does that runs the risk of missing chances for improvement. In my experience I try to invite criticism but channel it into constructive revision instead of revolt. It is sometimes frustrating for the critic because the improvement is yet another piece of work to be prioritized and it does not always get done with the urgency that the critic perceives. In fact, relating this back to John’s earlier comments, I think it would be valuable to create a greater expectation that we should see process improvements within our backlogs. Scrum teams tend to do this in a very agile way with their own internal processes. Departments outside that framework tend to be more clumsy at that. I may have to stop thinking about this topic. My mind keeps going 🙂

      Comment by David Allen — May 12, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

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