Creating change in an organization is also going to create conflict. A good change agent in an organization, and that should be the ScrumMaster, knows what kind of conflict will be encountered and how to handle it.

In this section, we’ll discuss how people respond to change and what causes conflict in an organization.

Conflict Creates Predictable Responses

When it comes to conflict, people tend to fall into a few predictable categories: the victim, the survivor, and the navigator.

  • The Victim – perceives themselves as independent of the facts (e.g., “I’m not part of this problem; that’s everyone else. What I’m doing is correct.”); they feel threatened by change and frequently become fatalistic about the whole thing. You can respond to victims by explaining what’s changing, why it’s changing, and how they can be part of the change. Acknowledge their concerns but dispel the belief that it’s being done to them.
  • The Survivor – believes they are at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control and attempt to survive by “holding on” (sticking to what they’ve always done) or even becoming competitive with others in the organization. You can respond to survivors by getting them to understand how they can contribute and even affect the changes that are planned. You’ll want to make sure they understand that continuing to do what they’ve always done, in the face of changes being planned, is probably the worst thing they could do.
  • The Navigator – face change and take a proactive approach (e.g., what can I do to support this change and even be ready for it?). They see what the future can look like and begin to pursue that vision. Embrace the navigator as an ally. Word of mouth is one of the strongest ways to sell change in an organization and the more people that are speaking in favor of the change, the more will accept it.

Types of conflict

  • Conflicting Resources – We all need “resources” at work including office space, meeting room, servers, laptops, desks, time, and access to experts. When those resources are not available conflict can arise.

Strategy: figure out what the actual resource conflict is (sometimes it isn’t as obvious as you might first think). Try to negotiate a solution to accessing the resource that can work for all parties. With teams, remember that resource conflicts are often caused by teams trying to work on too many Product Backlog Items at the same time. In these cases, work with your teams to reduce the work in process and help them learn how to work side-by-side instead of independently.

  • Conflicting Styles – Everybody has their way of getting work done. Some of us are quiet when we work, others work to themselves. Some like to hear music, some demand silence.

Strategy: When styles are creating conflict, try to negotiate a reasonable solution for your team. If necessary, involve the entire team and consider changing the team’s Ground Rules to resolve the style issues.

  • Conflicting Perceptions – All of us see the world through our own lens, and differences in perceptions of events can cause conflict, particularly where one person knows something that the other person doesn’t know but doesn’t realize this. If your team members regularly engage in “turf wars” or gossip, you might have a problem with conflicting perceptions.

Strategy: Make an effort to eliminate this conflict by communicating openly with your team, even when you have to share bad news. The more information you share with your people, the less likely it is that they will come up with their own interpretations of events.

  • Conflicting Goals – Sometimes we have conflicting goals in our work. For instance, one of our managers might tell us that speed is most important goal with customers. Another manager might say that in-depth, high-quality service is the top priority. It’s sometimes quite difficult to reconcile the two!

Strategy: Scrum teams should always be working under the same goals. The team frequently defines their values within their Ground Rules and Sprint Planning sets the short-term working goals. If there are conflicting goals on the team, it would be wise to get the team together to discover why. One possible source of this problem: unplanned work being passed into the Sprint without the knowledge of the rest of the team.

  • Conflicting Pressures – We often have to depend on our team mates to get our work done. However, what happens when you need a report from your colleague by noon, and he’s already preparing a different report for someone else by that same deadline? Conflicting pressures are similar to conflicting goals; the only difference is that conflicting pressures usually involve urgent tasks, while conflicting goals typically involve projects with longer timelines.

Strategy: Again, as with conflicting goals, conflicting pressures are often caused by unplanned work being passed into the Sprint, probably by a manager to which the team member was unwilling to say “no.”

  • Conflicting Roles – Sometimes we have to perform a task that’s outside our normal role or responsibilities. If this causes us to step into someone else’s “territory,” then conflict and power struggles can occur. The same can happen in reverse – sometimes we may feel that a particular task should be completed by someone else.

Strategy: Scrum teams operate under the concept of mutual accountability. When work is accepted into a Sprint during Sprint Planning, it is owned by the Development Team. The Development Team members must then determine, hopefully on an as-needed basis, the right people or persons to whom to give the task. Roles within the Development Team are irrelevant.

  • Different Personal Values – Imagine that your boss has just asked you to perform a task that conflicts with your ethical standards. Do you do as your boss asks, or do you refuse? If you refuse, will you lose your boss’s trust, or even your job? When our work conflicts with our personal values like this, conflict can quickly arise.

Strategy: the only way to give a Scrum team work is through the Product Owner. If very important, the Sprint can be cancelled and re-planned around the new priorities. If your team is being asked to do things they either shouldn’t do or aren’t ethically appropriate to do, it is likely time to call together the entire team and discuss the situation and the team’s response.

  • Unpredictable Policies – When rules and policies change at work and you don’t communicate that change clearly to your team, confusion and conflict can occur. In addition, if you fail to apply workplace policies consistently with members of your team, the disparity in treatment can also become a source of dissension.

Strategy: When rules and policies change, make sure that you communicate exactly what will be done differently and, more importantly, why the policy is changing. When people understand why the rules are there, they’re far more likely to accept the change.


The most important element in understanding conflict is understand why conflict is occurring and where the people involved in the conflict “are coming from.” In other words, what’s their frame of reference?

Once you understand who and why, you can move on to responding and resolving the conflict, which is the topic of another section.