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Sworn Friends: Why do the project manager and the team lead fight all the time?

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#Management 06 october 2023
  • Alex Vorozhishev

    Head of direction (Flutter/iOS)

Currently, we have peace and quiet in our company, but we remember the times when project managers and team leads were constantly fighting. Each wanted to dominate the project and understood tasks in their own way. Sometimes literally everyone got involved in resolving conflicts — up to the top executives. Eventually, we figured out how to prevent such clashes. Reveal all the details in this article.

Who are these people and what do they share?

You surely know what a project manager and a team lead do, but let's synchronize. This is important because different companies understand these roles differently. Here's how we see them.
Project Manager (PM): Responsible for planning and organizing the process. Their goal is to implement the project within a specified timeframe and budget. They manage resources, set tasks and priorities, and work with the client. PMs possess skills in risk and conflict management.

Development Team Lead (TL): They are responsible for the developers, directing overall efforts in the right direction. The team lead is accountable for team development, development standards, and architectural integrity of the product. They should have high technical skills and assist developers in solving tasks.

The main similarity between them: both manage the project. The main difference: the PM focuses on the project as a whole, while the team lead focuses on the technical part. Usually, they work in tandem: they plan deadlines together, hire specialists together. And this is precisely where fertile ground for conflict arises.

To substantiate our point, we conducted a small survey. These were polls among the subscribers of our Telegram channels for developers and project managers. It turned out that conflicts occur in about a third of the projects.
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Let's delve into why conflicts arise using specific examples.

Case #1: The Team Lead and Project Manager see the project goals differently.

The project deadline is nearing. The client is pressing the manager, wanting to roll out the project by a certain date. The manager is hurrying the team to meet the commitments. A week before the release, the team lead says, "Our code is mediocre, we need refactoring." The manager argues there's no time. But the team lead insists: delivering the project with weak code is a bad idea.
How to work through the issue:

✔️ Find a compromise. For example, both could acknowledge that there is an important part of the code that needs to be wrapped in Unit tests, while there are generic blocks that do not require meticulous work.

✔️ Divide responsibilities. Each will focus on their tasks and will not interfere with each other. For instance, the project manager will handle planning and control of primary tasks, while the team lead will focus on work quality.

✔️ Redistribute resources. Resources can be initially distributed to satisfy everyone. For example, if code quality is a high priority for the team lead, it's better to allocate more resources for testing from the start.

It's crucial here that both individuals listen to each other and are open to dialogue. If one calmly and logically explains their stance to the other, they will surely find a compromise. To avoid similar conflicts in the future, the project manager and the team lead can work on communication from the get-go: discussing each other's goals, responsibilities, and places in the team.

Case #2: The Team Lead and Project Manager can't decide who is in charge.

We had a case in our practice when on one of the projects, the PM tried to lead the TL. Moreover, this was a new direction in the company, which had no background. Initially, this led to conflicts, the team lead tried to claim primacy. Later, he realized that the project manager understood nothing about development and started to mislead him: stretching deadlines and writing substandard code.
Much on the project depends on the leadership style. In this case, the problem was that the guys tried to manage differently. As a reminder, there are four styles: dictator, formalist, liberal, democrat.

If the relationship between the leaders is strained due to different leadership styles, you might try the following methods.

✔️ Discuss differences in leadership styles. Leaders can choose the style that aligns with the project's interests. Conflict analysis methods, such as the "Weighted Average" technique or the "Four Pillars" method, can be used.

✔️ Find a compromise. If the leaders can't find common ground, try to find a compromise that takes into account the interests of both leaders.

✔️ Appoint a neutral mediator. A mediator will help resolve disagreements and streamline the workflow. This could be an external consultant or a manager with enough experience to help the leaders find common ground.

✔️ Divide roles and responsibilities. It makes sense to divide responsibilities in such a way that each leader deals with tasks that match their leadership style and competencies.

Case #3: The Project Manager and Team Lead have different attitudes towards planning

I have witnessed various cases in my experience. Here's one of them. The manager was ready to write to the team lead and developers every day. He asked how things were going with the tasks and so on. If anything did not go according to the plan, he escalated it immediately. Meanwhile, the team lead took on a task, estimated it for 12 hours and vanished, not responding to the manager. He completed the task on time, but while he was at it, the situation escalated. In the end, a conflict arose.
Fortunately, such conflicts are easy to prevent. It's crucial initially to agree on how often developers will update on the task status. For example, every day during the daily stand-up.

Case #4: The Project Manager and Team Lead assess risks differently

The Project Manager might think that a small amount of time should be allocated for risks as the project is not complex. At the same time, the Team Lead might think that more time for risks should be allotted because there are complex nuances in the architecture. This may lead to disagreements on the deadlines to be set and what risk management methods to use.
Such a conflict can lead to incorrect priority setting and resource management, affecting the entire project and possibly causing dissatisfaction within the team. An error in risk assessment could lead to extended deadlines, overspending, or even a project failure.

To resolve the conflict, it's necessary to analyze the risks in detail and assess them with the team. After that, everyone should discuss together which risk management methods to use and which of them should be manageable.

Case #5: Initially Problematic Project

There is a hopeless project where the deadlines are almost missed. A couple of weeks before the deadline, top management decides to bring in a new project manager or team lead to "sort out" the situation. This person understands that in this crisis situation, there is no "magic pill." The reason could be anything: poorly structured process, initially incorrect estimation, lack of manpower. There are many possibilities.
Here, it should be understood that the attention of the management is fixed on the new leader, meaning the expectations are high. Feeling such responsibility, the project manager/team lead starts to press on the other side. Conflicts are inevitable, at least initially.

In this case, the project manager/team lead should focus on the following points:

✔️ Understand the situation. Investigate the causes, understand what measures will help to eliminate these causes. The project manager/team lead should analyze the project and identify problem areas to develop a working strategy.

✔️ Set priorities. It's better to focus on tasks that have the highest significance for the project.

✔️ Communicate. The project manager should build open communication with the project team and the client. The process should be transparent so that everyone sees the progress of the project and its problems.

✔️ Lead the team. The team lead should ensure that every team member understands their role in the project and knows what is required of them. He/she should motivate and support the team to achieve the goals.

✔️ Show flexibility. The project manager/team lead should be flexible and ready to change the strategy if the current one is not working.

✔️ Manage risks. The project manager/team lead should identify risks from each side and develop a strategy to manage them. An action plan should be outlined right away if the situation takes a negative turn.

✔️ Set realistic expectations. The project manager/team lead should determine what can realistically be achieved in the remaining time. The client should understand that the project can only be completed within certain parameters and consider the risks.

Summary: Main Causes of Conflicts

1. Human Factor.
Different personalities, inability to yield or seek compromises, difficulties with soft skills, and so forth. Usually, over time, thanks to team building activities and retrospectives, relationships stabilize. Overload of the team lead or the project manager is a matter that needs to be addressed with management.
2. Different Approaches and Working Methods.
Both the team lead and project manager try to pull the blanket towards themselves. The project manager attempts to control the development, while the team lead tries to take on more organizational responsibility. This also includes difficulties with agreeing on deadlines, understanding work processes, and so on.

What Helps Resolve Conflicts

Firstly, it is important to foster mutual understanding. This can be aided by developing hard and soft skills. Often, the team lead needs to work on soft skills, while the project manager should focus on hard skills.

It's evident that the project manager should understand the basic logic of how the product works. Otherwise, they simply won't be able to manage the development process and explain technical nuances to the client. However, they certainly should not be checking the codebase.

The team lead would benefit from honing communication skills: both with the team and with the client. Another crucial skill is time management. They have to prioritize tasks based on their urgency and sometimes juggle multiple projects.
Recommended readings for the project manager:

  • "Deadline" — a novel about project management by Tom DeMarco.
  • "The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement" by Eliyahu M. Goldratt.
  • "The Art of Project Management" by Scott Berkun.
Recommended readings for the team lead:

  • "Herding Cats: A Primer for Programmers Who Lead Programmers " by Rainwater J. Hank.
  • "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey.
  • "The Practice of Management" by Peter F. Drucker.

What kind of conflict is considered healthy?

Let's understand what an "adequate conflict" entails — it's a conflict where the project does not suffer either financially or in terms of code quality, somewhat akin to a conflict of interests.
Consider the most common scenario. What is important to a project manager in a project? To get it done efficiently and quickly. They want the client to be satisfied, which is correct. This is their fundamental goal. For a team lead, it's important to allocate resources correctly, optimize their workload and performance, and make quality decisions. Sometimes, they need to divert an employee from the work process to prevent burnout. It's essential to consider which release a task will fall into.

All of these issues can be resolved through good old-fashioned communication. If they discuss the problems together, evaluate the tasks, and distribute them, a compromise can be found. The essence of such a conflict lies in a system, which can be likened to a system of checks and balances.

When to involve management in a conflict

When the conflict affects the budget or deadlines of the project. For instance, if the team lead refuses to work with the manager, this is clearly a serious issue.
When the conflict impacts the quality of work. For example, if the manager disagrees with the team lead's decisions and this leads to rework and team burnout.

When the conflict between the manager and team lead affects the team. For instance, if due to the conflict, team members are unsure about which tasks to take on and who is accountable for them.

When the conflict cannot be resolved at the team level. For example, if all discussions during retrospectives and other meetings have led to no resolution.

If even after escalation the issue remains unresolved, it's better to separate the individuals involved onto different projects. Situations vary.

Summarizing: how to prevent conflicts between the team lead and the project manager

Establish clear roles and responsibilities. The project manager and the team lead should understand what tasks they need to perform and how their work is interconnected.
Define clear goals and expectations. When setting the goals of the project and roles, it is necessary for the project manager and the team lead to clearly define the expectations of the management and the client, and also to warn about the dangers and risks associated with the project.

Create a communication plan. It's necessary to develop a communication plan that defines the frequency and format of interactions between the manager and the team lead. This plan should consider different communication channels and be aligned with the project goals.

Determine and set up project management processes. A unified project management process needs to be defined, which will help understand how they should work together to achieve common goals.

Create a cohesive team. Establish a trustful and understanding atmosphere within the team, so that every member can express their thoughts and opinions, and be ready to help each other when problems arise.

Regularly update the status of current plans and stages. Conflicts can arise when something in the project changes unexpectedly. Regularly meet and update the data.

Share how things are going on your end. Are the team lead and project manager arguing? Or are they mainly best friends? And if there are any problems, how do you solve them?
  • Alex Vorozhishev

    Head of direction (Flutter/iOS)

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