Long ago, Ogg, the Cro-Magnon design engineer, attended his first team meeting at the Bison Valley Ax Works. He was completely unprepared for the level of conflict that he observed. Engineers appeared offended when members of the marketing department said, "Your stupid axes don't work." Marketing, in turn, grew angry when the engineers said, "Your idiotic ideas are worthless."
What was intended as constructive criticism was interpreted as a personal attack. Because an ax company is a particularly dangerous place in which to have unbridled interpersonal conflict, Ogg concluded that conflict on development teams was a very bad thing.
Even today, product developers fail to understand the complex role of conflict on development teams. Some feel that conflict simply wastes energy which could be spent on more productive activity. Others feel that conflict adds a lively and invigorating tension to group activities. Of course, reality is seldom this simple. Whether conflict is helpful or harmful depends on its timing and subject.
Early on in a project, conflict is helpful. At that point, there is a poorly defined problem, an incomplete set of solutions, and little agreement on how to proceed. Members of the team must both challenge the definition of the problem and broaden the range of possible solutions.
For example, the original requirement for the DC-3 passenger plane received by Douglas Aircraft specified a three-engine aircraft. Douglas correctly challenged this requirement and discovered that TWA actually wanted an aircraft that would still fly if one engine failed (as passengers were less willing to participate in a plane crash than crates of freight). The DC-3 achieved its objective by combining two engines and robust aerodynamics.
Early conflict causes a group to explore more options and develop better solutions. When a group suppresses this conflict, it takes longer to become cohesive, and the group risks that it may never gel. Curiously, without disagreement it's difficult to get commitment and cohesion. In general, when people have a chance to express their point of view and have its pros and cons heard and appreciated, they are more likely to accept and support a differing approach.
In contrast, conflict that persists after the group has made a well-examined decision is often harmful. At a certain point in a project, the potential benefit of changing approaches is less than the disruption caused by changing direction. At that stage, commitment is required. Most mature organizations recognize this.
For example, Intel has a saying: Disagree and Commit. This simple slogan nicely encapsulates a deep un-derstanding of decision making in organizations. Early disagreement is welcome, but then the team must unite behind a shared goal.
So remember, conflict is a sign of a healthy group if it occurs at the right time. It indicates that the group is processing through important and emotionally charged issues instead of avoiding them. Conflict indicates that a team is engaging instead of disengaging. It's always a secondary indicator of group functioning, however, and never the root cause. Don't conclude that you can get a group to function better by simply encouraging more conflict. It has to be at the right time, channeled correctly, and for a specific cause.