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Yegor Bugayenko
3 January 2017

How Much Do You Love Conflict?

Conflict is what progress is made of. A professional and well-managed team loves conflicts and creates them on a daily basis. A professional project manager provokes conflicts and makes sure none of them end in a consensus. Does that sound strange? It’s not sarcasm. Read on.

Have you ever heard the term “win-win?” Do you know what it means? My guess is that most of my readers aren’t exactly sure what this is about, even though it’s used very often. Let me explain. In any conflict, there are three possible outcomes: lose-lose, win-lose, and win-win. The first one is the worst, and the last one is the best. Here is an example.

Say your wife wants to watch a movie, and you want to watch a baseball game. That’s a conflict. It starts with a confrontation of positions. Your position is, “I want this game,” while her position is, “I want this movie.”

The easiest way is to hold to these positions no matter what, but very soon your conflict will turn into a fight and maybe eventually a divorce.

Project management offers a few conflict resolution techniques that can help you and your wife get out of this confrontation without asking the police for help. No matter which technique you use, the result will be either lose-lose, win-lose, or win-win.


Compromise is the worst outcome, and it’s known as lose-lose. For example, you both agree on watching the news—that’s a compromise. Neither of you will get what you wanted, a movie or a baseball game. You both lose. Who gains in this case? You neighbors and the police, since there will be no fight. Will the problem really be solved? No. You both will hate each other even more, because neither of your desires were satisfied. The divorce is still coming closer.

The same happens in software team conflicts—if and when we resolve them through compromises, everybody suffers except those management and HR monkeys who only care about a peaceful office environment. They don’t want to see us fighting over a piece of damn Java code. Moreover, they don’t really understand what the fight is about. They know nothing about that Singleton design pattern and can’t understand why these guys are almost ready to kill each other just because one of them says it’s a pattern and the other one calls it an anti-pattern, insists that the project must not use it, and threatens everybody with an immediate discharge if they don’t listen.

Such a fight freaks everybody out. Everybody who sees positions and doesn’t see interests, that is. Remember, the position is, “I want to see the movie” and “I want to use a singleton.” The only thing a confrontation of positions can produce is a fight, and the only solution is a compromise: “You guys need a good team-building party so you become friends and lose balls the desire to fight.” That’s what those monkeys build: teams. They believe that when the team is “strong,” there will be no fights, no conflicts, no arguments, no design patterns, no anti-patterns, and … no senior developers. There will be just one permanent compromise over everything.

In a family, compromises lead to divorces. In a software team, the best talent just leaves. They simply don’t want to see their interests being disrespected all the time, just for the sake of avoiding fights. Stay away from compromises; they are pure evil for both a family and a team.


The second option, which is a bit better than a compromise, is to use force: “I’m a man, so you do what I say; we will watch the game!” or “I feel sick; let me watch a movie.” In either case, one of you will get what he or she initially wanted. Even though this approach looks less “democratic,” it’s way more effective, mostly because it doesn’t involve any third parties: There is no interest of the police or neighbors involved, and the family resolves the conflict internally and naturally.

Both of you understand exactly why you’re watching that game now: because the male part of the family is physically stronger. Even though it may sound super annoying to you, my Californian readers, such a family would be way farther from a divorce than the one that used to make compromises, especially if the winning party is not always the same.

If your software team has a moronic experienced architect, you will most likely work in this conflict resolution model. He or she will make decisions, and you will have to go along. I wrote about such an architect here and here. I said there that an architect must be a dictator, making decisions and taking full responsibility for them.

If the architect is super smart, respected by everybody, and immortal, this force-based conflict resolution technique will work perfectly. The project will move forward fast, because everybody will work instead of think. There will be only one person who thinks—the architect.

The main drawback of this win-lose approach is the “lose” part: Someone is always losing. And it’s not about an offense, even though that’s also important. It’s about us missing some valuable information. You will never know why your wife wanted to watch that movie or why that junior developer was suggesting you use NoSQL instead of SQL. You will just force them both to shut up and follow your will. While they did, you still “lost” something. So basically it’s the team that is losing something, not just your wife or that junior developer.


The most difficult and yet most effective way to resolve a conflict is to collaborate in order to discover the interests of all parties and find a solution that satisfies them all. You start by asking, “Why do you want to watch that movie?” to learn what exactly is behind that aggressive “I want the movie” position. Again, there is a huge difference between a position and an interest.

You may hear this back: “I’m just tired.” So the real interest is to relax, not to watch the movie. The movie was just one of the options to get rest. Now, knowing her real interest, you may come up with, “How about I watch the game and give you a massage at the same time?” This way, the divorce may never happen.

Thus, the first important step is to help everybody abandon their positions and honestly expose their interests. When that’s done, we can all start to work not against each other but against the problem: With what solution will all our interests be satisfied at the same time?

We will ask that junior developer: “Why do you think we need NoSQL?” It’s very likely that we will hear something like, “I just want to learn this new concept.” This is his real interest—to learn something new while working on this project. Maybe we can offer him some other technology to learn? Maybe we can move him to another project where NoSQL is used? There are many options. But the first step is to understand what he really wants. Not what position he took, but what was his real motivation for it.

A truly professional software team is full of conflicts, which are always being resolved by collaboration. The team is not afraid of conflicts. Instead, it welcomes them, because they help reveal the real interests of all parties involved and make a lot of information visible and available.

Truly professional team players always try to provoke conflicts in order to gain an opportunity to resolve them through collaboration, thereby exiting through the win-win door. That’s how the team grows—not by hiding conflicts and making compromises, but by provoking them, making different interests visible, and finding the most optimal solutions.

Be aware, though, that this is way more difficult than organizing team-building parties.