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Dealing With an Inter-Team Conflict

Conflict Solving

17 July, 2020

Shyam Prabhakar
Shyam Prabhakar

Director of Engineering at Reality AI

Shyam Prabhakar, Engineering Manager at Stitch Fix, explains how he helped resolve the inter-team conflict at his organization by highlighting the role of empathy in the process.

Problem

I was leading a product team and we were trying to get a big new product to the market. Tension arose between one of my product teams and the infrastructure team that was reporting to the other director. We were working in their codebase and doing the things they should be typically doing, but we had to expedite and therefore, to be more self-sufficient we started to meddle in their work.

We would encounter roadblocks in every single step of the way being constantly belittled and criticized by the infrastructure team. Every other day our team would be blocked or someone would approach me complaining about an unpleasant email from the infrastructure team.

Actions taken

I tried to resolve it first in a low-profile way -- just talking to the infrastructure team members, but they kept repeating that we were doing things the wrong way. I realized that I had to escalate it and get their director and myself on the same page. The foundation of our mutual understanding was laid in empathy -- something that my current company embodies exceedingly well. I had to evoke empathy as to why we were doing what we were doing and at the same time understand their perspective and discontent.

Once two of us (leaders of respective teams) genuinely understood what was going on, we were on the right track to debug the problem. There were critical pieces of information and empathy missing from both teams and we, as managers, had to step up and lead by example. Our understanding and our empathy served as a model for members of both teams and helped them increase their own understanding and empathy.

We brought both teams together in a meeting and I had an architect on my team put a presentation. I chose him (over me) as someone with a technical gravitas who could make people pay attention. His presentation covered both the business case (what we were doing) and why we had to take all those shortcuts. Those shortcuts have been perceived as substandard software practices by the infrastructure team, but then for the first time, they had the opportunity to learn why we resorted to that and we understood they were not commendable practices. However, we shared our timeline and explained that those are experiments that were part of the proof of concept that we would entirely throw away once we would design the product that was sellable. The thorough explanation of our process significantly contributed to the increased understanding and empathy.

Also, before we started with the formal part of the meeting, we had a clearing intro explaining why we were there but also sharing how our code reviews, internal meetings, etc. went thus far.

One of the conclusions of the meeting was to include one person from the platform team to our standups who could provide immediate feedback if we were doing something off the track but who would also have more complete insight into what we were doing. Moreover, on the personal level, we instigated the sense of shared ownership; it was acknowledged that the platform team was also contributing to what we were doing on the product side and was a part of our team efforts. As a result, all the tension and roadblocks had been removed and we continued to collaborate across our teams.

Lessons learned

  • We as a company did a great job by including empathy in our core values. At the end of the day, we are all human and most misunderstandings go beyond technical debates and can’t be solved only at the technical level. Instead, you should take a break, try to look at things from another person’s perspective, and be empathetic.
  • Always look for empathetic people and partner with them. If my counterpart at the VP level was not open to learn about and understand our problems, it would never work out. Also, face-to-face communication and our facial mimicry encourage empathy, so sit together with a person/team to discuss all disagreements.

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