My professor at the university once taught us the sentence which has remained in my memory until this very day: “In conflict lies creativity”. A conviction which I still don’t completely share, but he maintained the conflict quite “vociferously” and consistently which not every student liked, but, as a student, one hardly had any options of defending oneself against it. Later in our professional lives, we were taught in the management training to apply “constructive” conflict mechanisms and nonetheless many managers (usually from the older generation) vociferously wielded their power. However, today’s management style (thank goodness) has no place anymore in modern organisations because the agility movement in many divisions repeatedly endeavours to increasingly also focus on the objective level and endeavours to minimise efficiency-disrupting elements such as “power grabs”, personal sensitivities and also interpersonal problems. Will we then become perhaps too conflict-adverse?
It would be an illusion if we would believe that we could resolve conflicts with agile organisations. The power (the design and decision-making) doesn’t go away, but rather only relocates itself. This doesn’t make it any easier for the management because essential sections of the organisation are no longer controlled by the hierarchy – a type of powerlessness then pervades management teams. One could almost be of the opinion that everything was much easier in traditional organizations: Because it was clear that the Manager made the decision and the employee implemented this decision (completely according to the ideal of a Taylorist approach). Yet today, there are still organisations (or even divisions of organisations) which are quite successful while using this system, but they certainly don’t promote creativity at the employee level.
In agile organisations, the power architecture is now changing and essential creativity flexibilities are opening up for the operational (employee) level. But to now believe that the conflicts will just disappear would be naive. Quite the contrary: The complexity of the interaction and collaboration increases and thus the potential for new tensions and new conflicts increases. However, conflicts can also be addressed more easily in agile structures. If, in the past, hierarchical structures were also often an obstacle to candidly discussing conflicts – there always indeed existed a clear dependent relationship between the Manager and the employee, a new relationship level has thus been created between the agile role-holders, an interaction which ideally no longer knows any hierarchical dependencies.
In particular, if traditional companies wish to transform themselves into an agile organisational form, this is oftentimes not so easy. The management itself must amass experience in holding agile roles and oftentimes itself becomes the role-holder of agile roles. However, in this regard, the hierarchy can never quite be completely eliminated whereby indeed a somewhat even problematic organisational dependency can be created in the agile roles. This is possibly unavoidable during a phase of transformation, but it would thus also be important to understand that agile methods will not attain their full effectiveness until the Manager, Product Owner, Scrum Master, among others, assume roles during this process. As before, the employees on the agile teams will place their focus on the organisational context because this still determines their work life.
Agile work demands a change in perspective. No longer are the internal organisational relationships in the forefront, but rather the customer is the focus. We must repeatedly remind ourselves of this principle during the agile transformation. Agile methods, e.g. the retrospective, help us to also focus our perspective on ourselves and to critically scrutinise our own behaviour. This is then also the right place to openly addressing conflicts and discussing constructive solutions. However, in this regard, we also need a certain degree of ability to tolerate and accept that conflicts will exist. We must learn to tolerate tensions and recognise that differing opinions are impulses for continued development – abilities which we have lost in so many traditional organisations. Joseph Joubert once said: “The goal of a conflict or a dispute should not be to achieve victory, but rather progress”, but this increasingly demands that we become personalities that can tolerate conflicts if we want to continue to develop ourselves.
Agile work is laden with conflicts – probably no more, but also no less than traditional work approaches. Agile organisational structures and methods can be quite preventative and beneficial with regards to conflicts. However, agile work will never solve conflicts completely, but rather only make conflicts a little more transparent. Thus, through agile organisations, we become no less creative, but rather our creativity is promoted even more through such transparency. And, as before, I am of the belief that creativity is not (just) created from conflicts, but that is a whole other story ...
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