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Encouraging healthy conflict

We were recently at a client who wanted to encourage healthy conflict within their teams. This is a common desire amongst teams who have become very easy going with their process. Usually some signs are: everyone agrees to everything or says nothing and just goes along with the group. Very little change or innovation or risk taking happen with regards to process improvement.

This is a tricky space as you don’t want to encourage fighting or conflict for the sake of conflict. Rather you want to encourage excited conversations, with the emphasis being on what’s best for the team and having no hurt feelings along the way.
Phew! Easy said than done!
We have had luck in this by playing collaborative games with teams. In these board games you either win or lose as a team. If one person dies – you all die. This results in each person’s turn being a discussion/argument of what they should or shouldn’t do. As it’s *just* a game, most of these discussion are not taken personally and are a great model for healthy conflict, and learning how to make decisions together as a team.
It helps if someone who has played the game before just facilitates the game so that the rules are clear, as they can be complicated.
You can tell a lot from watching a team play, so this is great for Scrum Masters to facilitate and observe. Here are some things to notice:
  • who is scared to take a chance?
  • who dominates decisions?
  • who argues and gives up?
  • who is risk taker vs risk adverse?
  • who thinks ahead?
  • who is engaged?
  • who wants to save the day and be the hero?
  • who dictates solutions?
  • what happens when there are conflicting ideas?
  • are all peoples turns discussed or only some?
  • who moves the pieces?
  • what happens when you are in trouble and about to die?
We usually debrief what we notice during the game afterwards and then see if the team notices this in their daily interactions. This allows you to potentially spend time on specific things with teams. For example, teaching them how to suggest solutions vs tell people what to do. This particular technique – whilst helpful in the game, is also great for developers mentoring inexperienced developers to learn. In a few weeks time, play the game again and see how things have changed.
Some examples of great collaboration games are: Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert. These can take from 10 min to 45 min to play. Pandemic is also good – but the rules are much more complex and it might take longer to play.


2 thoughts on “Encouraging healthy conflict”

  1. Interesting post, so interesting that I am tempted to post a comment.

    Couple of other games to try:

    Another activity to try is Escape Rooms. It can sometime help observing behaviours that’s not very obvious to see within day to day interaction.

    Another fun activity to try if you have a VR setup at work is the game: Set it up so two teams play against each other. And have a game themed retrospective after

    I’d like to know more about encouraging exciting conversations. How would you define an exciting conversation? As i understand your post you are encouraging exciting rather that conflicting?

    Are you proposing playing a game together and then using it as talking points in the future? It doesn’t feel natural to always point back the the co-op boardgames that we’ve played together and draw parallels to that. Do you only have the game example here?

    Something that I’ve been experimenting with is introducing the vocabulary that makes it safe and easier to talk to each other. Some inspiration taking here: specifically the psych safety point.

    1. Hi Justin

      Thanks for the other links. We’ve actually blogged on the Escape Room idea for a team activity before too, we think that’s a great idea.

      How we’ve used the games is to debrief with the team directly after playing the game, saying “We noticed x happened, how do you think that relates to what you do at work”. We don’t generally refer to the game again later, since once you’d made the behaviour explicit after the game debrief you can talk to that behaviour directly.

      When we say exciting conversations, I think we just mean passionate and animated, but not aggressive.

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