Agile Careers


Jim ("Cope") Coplien is an old C++ shark who now integrates the technological and human sides of the software business as an author, coach, trainer, and executive consultant. He is one of the founders of the software pattern discipline, and his organizational patterns work is one of the foundations of both Scrum and XP. He currently works for Gertrud & Cope, is based in Denmark, and is a partner in the Scrum Foundation. He has authored or co-authored many books, including the recently released Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist. 

Log in to register a comment.

Subscribe here.

Blogs Blogs

Entries with tag conflict.


The Retrospective Community recently suffered a crisis of safety on their discussion list because, well, the owner of the list said so. Safety is important but it’s almost always misunderstood. Let me discuss three spheres of safety in workplace interactions: physical well-being; emotional neutrality; and trustworthy engagement.

My sense of safety feels threatened in settings where too many of the knobs have been set to cultural values that are unfamiliar to me. My rental car was once broken into in Szczecin: they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Polish. They took my report at a police station through a government translator who hadn’t come there since the days that people entered the building permanently, never to emerge. Call that: “anxiety:” Fear of the unknown or unknowable (for both of us!) We find an extreme but real example from the contemporary high-tech world in the anonymous Tweets threatening rape against British journalist Criado-Perez for advocating women's’ likenesses on British currency.

The Retrospective Community finds safety in avoiding emotions. Many of them have been influenced heavily by Jerry Weinberg, who emphasizes that conflict resolution should take place on a rational plane. That’s where “I messages”, congruent communication, and active listening come from. Diminish emotional engagement, or shift verboten emotional responses to rationalism.

In a healthy community, I know that in spite of anything you say or do, that you are acting in the best interest of both of us. That gives you complete rhetorical freedom. We call that a community of trust. Such maturity lets people separate their safety from the uncomfortable feelings that arise in passionate debate.

Too many people equate organizational health with comfort, rather than safety. It ends being an ill-defined, almost drug-induced state of Candide bliss. But progress depends on upsetting the status quo. Shaw said, “All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Guns, Germs and Steel ascribes much social advancement to war. Gever Tulley’s TED talk entitled “Five Dangerous Things you should Do with your Kids” makes more than a passing reference to cuts, burns and bruises.

Now, I’m not advocating conflict for its own sake, any more than I advocate progress for its own sake. But progress entails change, and change displaces people from their comfort zones. Improvement involves popping the happy bubble. When growing from walking to riding a bike, cuts and bruises are likely. That doesn’t imply we should seek cuts and bruises. But it also means that we should not count cuts and bruises as failure. To make an omelet, you’ve got to break a few eggs.

Agile leaders bear the responsibility to set the ground rules in their communities. Sometimes prior shared context is enough, but it’s more common that people come together with widely ranging interaction styles. Many leaders realize that responsibility in the form of covenants or team contracts. The problem is that most of them do it neither at the level of survival (it’s important to establish basic protocols of communication to quickly allow newcomers to engage) nor at the level of trust.

St. Augustine admonished us, “Ne quid nimis:” but everything in moderation. Good moderation comes naturally if people are comfortable at the Maslow survival level, and if the interactions are drawn upward towards a recognized common goal in a community of mutual trust. Artificially muted conflict is thinly disguised tyranny or censorship, and its goal is a false, artificially constructed sense of belonging in a trust-less environment. Let the good times roll, but let the storms rage as well. There is no sicker organization than the ones that silence tearful engagement.

Sign Up and Fight!

It’s hard to grow in an organization where everyone shares all your views.

You hope to learn when you sign up to a online discussion group; you hope to be challenged when you read a book. You take up a job not because you can do it perfectly, but because it will bring you to a point of creating value unachievable from your current state. Value comes in what the French call différance (different from the French word for difference, which is différence) — on ongoing interplay of conflicting ideas that play out in dialectic.

Conflict is an essential ingredient of growth. I’ll claim that the more intense the conflict, the more rapid the growth, within a certain field of play. That field of play is sometimes difficult to delineate, and this installment is about those boundaries.

I often join organizations for the sake of the challenge. “Joining” ranges from having beers with fans of the opposing football team during a championship match to devoting my career efforts to an organization that I believe I can better change from the inside than from the outside. Neither of these postures says anything inherently bad about any football team or any organization. However, no organization (or football team) is ever perfect, and the dialectic process changes both object and subject in the process.

There are always rules for “joining.” It means playing fairly by the rules of their game. If I join an online discussion group I should not represent myself as an unqualified opponent of the foundations that draw the group together, even if I think they are all misguided. I should instead play within the group’s own rules to deconstruct our respective posture and lead all of us into learning. This is respect for the individuals that I join and courtesy in my engagement with them. Play clean, by the rules.

The group may expect something of me for the prize of joining up. If it’s a job, I need to produce. If it’s a club, I’m expected to attend and engage. Joining only to affect your agenda is subterfuge. Be trustworthy and loyal.

One rule of the game is to tackle one issue at a time. If I jump all over the place, dodging when cornered, and ever charging up new hills, I’ll at best be viewed as a flake and will certainly not achieve my objective. Paradigm shifts rarely happen from within but rather through changes in the environment or in how we view it; it’s difficult to project those views from inside a system. One step at a time.

It is always important to be open for change myself. If I make myself part of the system and if I am changing it, then I must also be willing to change. This means being able to take a dispassionate stance, at least occasionally, and of course it implies great listening skills. Keep an open mind.

Be yourself. It’s important to be genuine. People have learned over many centuries to be able to smell politics. Let the chips fall where they may. Be friendly and helpful.

You may trigger emotion — emotion which in turn can cause fear or insecurity to rise in you. Follow your heart, and do what is right. Be brave.

Most important, be aware of the prize. By joining and fighting, am I giving or taking? It’s O.K. to benefit both from association with a group of people and from the debates that go along with that association. But you will lose trust if the prize is the pride of being right or personal gain from lining them up to your position. Be generous.

Showing 2 results.