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Kanban Systems: How to solve agile conflicts

Originally published by CIO magazine (German only)

Kanban teams often reach their performance limits because of self-management and increased interaction. Here’s how to solve this.

Agility is no longer a foreign word within the IT industry. Companies need to work agile to stay competitive and not be sidelined. Nevertheless, the "Future Organization Report 2019" by Campana & Schott and the Institute of Information Systems at the University of St. Gallen, brought the following to light: Companies often work with agile methods like Scrum or Kanban, but they are in reality not agile at all, because their employees have a different mindset. However, they’re still turning to new and agile methods, especially for cross-divisional projects.

Working in a Kanban team does not automatically have to be associated with conflict. However, any form of collaboration can be explosive if misunderstandings remain unresolved or emotions are suppressed.
Working in a Kanban team does not automatically have to be associated with conflict. However, any form of collaboration can be explosive if misunderstandings remain unresolved or emotions are suppressed.

One problem is that cross-divisional collaboration between IT and business departments rarely runs smoothly. One of the main reasons is poor or misleading communication. If a responsible contact person is missing in addition, in a project with Kanban teams for example, stress is predetermined.

Agile working in Kanban teams

The term “Kanban”, as such, originally comes from Japanese and means "card" or "board". The Kanban board, therefore, is at the center, where tasks are visualized on cards for a clear, plannable, and controllable workflow. This method was once introduced to make production more flexible and decentralized. IT departments, in particular, use this agile method today for project management, aiming for a culture of continuous improvement. They focus on self-management, transparency and efficiency - without any support from outside, meaning managers, team leaders or scrum masters.

Kanban teams approach process improvements in a self-organized way, taking responsibility for completing tasks and making decisions. Another key feature of collaboration in Kanban teams is the so-called "flow", which implies that all tickets flow through the system as seamless as possible without faltering. The advantages seem to outweigh at first. Everyone knows their responsibilities, and, thanks to the “flow”, process steps have a rapid turnaround time. In accordance with the principle of transparency, employee overloads and existing bottlenecks become obvious. An efficient system - if it works.

Kanban systems don’t know a master

One of the biggest challenges for Kanban teams is communication. Unlike Scrum teams, they do not have an attentive Scrum Master to keep an eye on the communication process. It is therefore the responsibility of the team members to maintain clear and open communication. Especially when team members are working independently on different tasks, effective communication is essential to ensure an optimal work flow. It is the backbone of teamwork. Conversely, misunderstandings or a lack of information sharing can quickly lead to misinterpretations, duplication of effort, missed deadlines, tension or conflict, all of which reduce productivity.

Conflicts are not always obvious. They need not be accompanied by loud outbursts of anger. There are also more subtle signs, such as overly formal communication in IT tickets that has more in common with the exchange of bullet-proof contract texts than with collaboration. These subtle signs can add up over time, building up anger and preventing customer-focused collaboration. Without clear conflict resolution strategies, teams often find themselves in a minefield of unspoken issues, where a small spark can turn a seeming banality into a devastating explosion.

In such moments, the ability to resolve conflicts independently becomes a shining lifeline for those who are wasting precious time in difficult coordination meetings and want to make internal cooperation more solution-oriented.

Whether Kanban or Scrum - This is how an agile mindset works

Conflict competence is rarely inherent in teams. It has to be developed. These three strategies will help agile teams move forward faster:

1. Initiate heated discussions

The first strategy paves the way for a sustainable solution to the conflict: open sparring! A free space for all to think, to criticise and express their feelings! Opinions are exchanged in a protected space where active listening is crucial. You might think: "How difficult can listening be?" Practice shows that it can be very difficult.

Ask yourself these questions: How often do you hear complaints about developers not understanding customer requirements? How often do cross-departmental discussions go round in circles because people talk past each other? And how much more relaxed, time-efficient and customer-focused would internal collaboration be if these problems were eliminated?

A strategic conflict resolver, also known as a mediator, can do a lot to systematically develop this valuable skill. As a result, teams can defuse tense customer relationships, discussions can become more solution-focused, and interdepartmental collaboration can become as smooth as the gears of a clockwork.

2. Getting to the point

The second strategy goes beyond scratching the surface. It aims to get to the heart of the matter. Why are tempers flaring? Only when the team identifies the root cause can real solutions be developed and lasting success celebrated.

It often turns out that recurring points of tensions between two parties have nothing to do with the current situation, but can be traced back to an unresolved conflict from a previous project. Quick and sustainable conflict resolution therefore requires us to move away from the superficial issues, focus on the real problem and work together to solve it.

3. Tough confrontation

The third strategy is constructive feedback that leads to change. Personal attacks are avoided. Instead, the focus is on behaviour. Although most of us have heard the rules of feedback many times, and some of us are sick of hearing them, it is an underrated discipline. We often think that factual feedback is easy, especially in the tech-heavy IT world where it seems to be all about bits and bytes. This is a common misconception that wastes a lot of time.

The problem is that the person who decides whether we have mastered this discipline is also the person who receives the feedback. The feedback receiver does not always see the feedback giver's efforts in the same positive light, even if the feedback was formulated according to all the feedback rules. Why is this? Because we often criticise something the other person cares about. This makes it personal.

An example of this is an employee who has worked for years on a process that he or she has developed and for which he or she has been responsible for a long time. Even a purely factual criticism of this process can be very personal to him because he has an emotional attachment to it - it is like his "baby".

In such situations, a mediator can be a valuable bridge, ensuring that the intention of the constructive feedback reaches the other person and that together - in an appreciative and constructive way - the process is improved.

Let's keep this in mind: Developing conflict competence can put teams and entire departments on the fast track to agile collaboration. A mediator can help to systematically build this competence. So that teams can confidently pass any practical endurance test.


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