Nipping tension in the bud!

Developing learning experiences is a creative process that involves listening actively, working together as a team, and, ultimately, delivering a solution that matches project requirements. As with all collaborative processes, there might be points of conflict as each party strives to listen, understand,
and deliver expectations.

Managing conflict is not just about finding a resolution. The best strategies help identify potential conflict and prevent it from becoming an issue or escalating further.

As learning design professionals, we need to understand true collaboration so we can help the team manage potential conflict. Conflict management strategies keep everyone focussed on the same goal, reduce or prevent conflicts from escalating, and ensure communication channels are healthy and productive.

The job of a learning designer is to uncover the core behaviours that meet the business goals and then create learning activities that help people meet those goals. Our collaborative teams also often include key stakeholders, subject matter experts, learning technologists, reviewers, and learning management system administrators. With all these players, there can be plenty of room for misunderstandings and poor communication, which can result in mistakes, project overrun, and frustration. That’s why we might look to one of the broadest and most useful communication frameworks for help.

OODA framework

The OODA Framework

The OODA framework was originally a military concept used to ‘beat the opposition’.

It’s also used in marketing to address completion. However, if you think about the approach, it’s equally useful as a conflict management strategy.

If this isn’t something you’ve used before, here’s a quick taster for you:

Observe Ooda

Imagine you’re about to start a project to develop training for the new timesheet system. Jenny walks into the project initiation meeting late and her face looks like thunder. “I’ve got better things to do than come to a pointless meeting about a project we don’t need!” she says, arms crossed firmly across her chest.

Although you might be tempted to comment or try to pacify her, the first step is to observe what’s happening without involvement.

No matter what your role, avoid making assumptions as to why a person is thinking so negatively and that there is a problem you need to solve. Jumping to conclusions might alienate Jenny even more and could compromise your working relationship. There might be facts you aren’t aware of that are causing her to feel grumpy. She could be sporting a wicked headache or just had her leave cancelled and needs to vent. Or maybe someone simply hasn’t explained her role sufficiently. By observing and listening first, you might be able to learn more before you speak.

Orient in OODA

This step happens when you’re ready to speak. By speaking, we mean using investigative questions to find out more about the environment, the history that has led to this project, and what previous attempts there has been to develop timesheet training. Ask open-ended questions and listen actively, but don’t try to solve any issues just yet. Your questions don’t have to be directed only at the person with whom you see the potential conflict. Question others in the room or give everyone the opportunity to speak; this can help clear up key messages about the purpose and goals for everyone on the team.

    “So, let’s go round and share with the team what part you’re each playing in this project.”

    “Just so we’re all clear, what do we think the business drivers for this project are?”

    “What is the impact on the business if we don’t complete this project?”

Keep investigating without making any judgements. As with any other project, in a learning project everyone needs to be working toward the same goal. If any one person is not on board, they are unlikely to give it their best and that can be a risk to the success of the project. This step gets to the root of the problem so you can resolve differences early rather than bury them or pretend they don’t exist.

In this step of the strategy, if it’s in your control, it’s time to make a decision that will resolve the concerns or problems that are creating conflict between team members.

Thinking back to Jenny: if, when you’re asking your investigative questions in the ‘Orient’ stage, you learn that she had only been called into the project at the last minute, hadn’t been given the full project brief, and was already snowed under with work, then no wonder she wasn’t happy about another meeting and another project. The project has become the target of her anger and frustration, but what she’s saying and her body language aren’t reflecting the real cause of her frustration.

Armed with more information, you can make a decision that addresses the real problem. You may not be able to change everything, but as the decision maker in the project, you can show Jenny that you’re trying to help, and that might alleviate some of the tension.

     “So, how much time do you have available for this project Jenny? We’ll try to work in with what you can do.”

     “Are there any particular days you would prefer that we can contact you?”

If it’s in your control:

“What other work do you have on? Is there anything that we can move to free up a bit more time?”

Following up matters! The last stage is to do what you decided is necessary to mitigate or prevent conflict.

In Jenny’s case, the ‘follow-up work’ (in terms of the OODA model) could happen in the project initiation meeting, but only if there’s time. Making the meeting longer than planned or not achieving the original purpose could create other areas of tension and conflict.

If you have the opportunity in the meeting, you could go over the brief and the project plan. Maybe it’s about the team establishing guidelines for communication and working together. However, if you don’t have time to cover everything you need to, you could schedule a meeting for another time to address Jenny’s concerns, which will ensure she feels you’re helping her rather than singling her out!

Each project will have different goals and setbacks. To get the best out of the entire team, the OODA model will remind you to approach collaboration strategically and in line with conflict resolution processes.

If you want to dig deeper into this topic, we recommend you attend the Managing Conflict course run by New Zealand Institute of Management and Leadership (NZIML).

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