Building Alignment: Team working agreements

True story: During a brand new team’s liftoff workshop, where they were figuring out their team’s identity and purpose and working out how to work together, conversation revealed that several team members were very uncomfortable addressing disagreements and conflicts directly. Based on experiences with previous teams, the new colleagues realized this was a team dysfunction they needed to address if they wanted to succeed as a team. They decided to set a team safe-word (they chose “broccoli”) that would be used to signal that this team needed to stop and address a problem directly rather than dodging it. Because they had agreed on this – and put it in their working agreement explicitly – even the conflict-averse team members felt comfortable later on “calling broccoli!” when touchy problems did arise.
Another true story: on meeting a new team, I was amazed a team’s 30+ item working agreement.  I remarked that it must have taken a long time to co-create such a comprehensive document.  “Oh no,” someone replied, “we just went around and collected other team’s agreements and put them together!”.  As you might expect, this team’s working agreement held absolutely no meaning for them since they didn’t actually generate the content themselves.

Why does my team need a working agreement?

High-performing teams don’t magically form themselves. Figuring out how intelligent, passionate people will do great work together takes deliberate effortIt’s worth investing a little time in collaboratively creating team working agreements in order to help the individuals on the team to align around shared expectations.  Identifying common values and expected behaviours lays the foundation for building the sense of psychological safety that enables great teamwork
When I meet with a new team, I often find that their agreement (if there is one at all) focuses on logistics like meeting times and information storage rather than how to *be* together And there’s usually no provision for what to do when someone breaks the agreement, which lessens its power – an unenforceable agreement is no agreement at all.

A strong team working agreement:

  • Is collaboratively created by the team itself so that they are holding themselves accountable for doing the things they’ve identified as important.
  • Clearly states what behaviours team members expect of each other: by making expectations transparent, individual team members are also encouraged to become more conscious of their individual actions and what impact they have on others.
  • Describes how the team will handle instances where the agreement is brokenso that team members have more confidence about speaking up when this happens: “Hey, we agreed to do X, and that doesn’t seem to be happening right now? How do we want to address this?”
  • Focuses on a few specific behaviours the team wants to pay attention to. 4-6 items is usually plenty.
  • Gets updated as the team evolves – this is a living document

How can my team build a powerful working agreement?

There’s a number of approaches for having the conversations required to build an effective working agreement – choose facilitation techniques that will encourage everyone in the room to talk.  I’m a big fan of using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® because it’s a compelling facilitation technique for cutting through the conversational cruft and getting to the heart of a conversation.  (Mike Bowler and I offer a workshop on using LSP to build working agreements – the handout with instructions is downloadable from Mike’s website).
Regardless of the facilitation technique used, there’s a set of questions I like to use as the foundation for a conversation:
  • Describe the best or worst team member you’ve worked with.
    • Give participants the opportunity to describe the kinds of behaviours they’ve found helpful or destructive in the past – this is useful information for shaping the kinds of interactions we want to foster in our working agreement
  • What’s the superpower you bring to this team that others might not be aware of?
    • Sometimes it’s hard to talk about what we’re good at, especially when it’s a ‘softer’ skill.  Astute teams might also notice if they have a diversity of superpowers or if there’s an imbalance of strengths in certain areas
  • What kind of help do I want from my team to be high-performing?
    • Given how hard it can be to talk about what we’re good at, it’s really difficult for many people to ask for help, especially when the team is new and we’re uncomfortable with vulnerability.  By practicing this at the outset, it lays a foundation for asking for help down the road.
  • What colour signifies conflict to you? Why?
    • This is a really simple exercise that yields very rich conversation about a sensitive topic.  You can use paint chips, crayons, squares of construction paper or any tokens that give people a range of colours to choose from.  Give them the tokens, ask them to pick a colour, then invite everyone to share their answer to the question (And no, not everyone will choose red)
  • What should we do if it seems like one of us is letting the team down?
    • Possibly the most important question as it helps the team prepare for when someone breaks the working agreement.

With the answers to these questions in mind, I ask each team member to propose a behaviour to include in the working agreement.  I remind them to focus on capabilities the team needs to work on, not behaviours that are already solidly established.  And, I encourage them to identify positive behaviours rather calling out undesirable actions (e.g. “do bring team issues up as soon as you sense there’s a problem”, not “don’t have backchannel conversations about problems”).  I also remind them to include an item about how to handle it when the agreement is not being honoured.

Real-life examples of working agreement items I’ve seen teams include:

  • When you think someone is struggling, offer help right away – don’t wait
  • In team discussions create space for everyone on the team to speak
  • Show respect for others by being on time for team meetings (this is a perennial favourite!)
  • If you have a problem with someone, speak to them directly before bringing it up with someone else

If the team is small, they might include all of the proposed behaviours in the initial agreement; larger teams will likely need to prioritize which items to focus on for now in order to keep the list focused.

Care and Feeding of Your Working Agreement

Keep your working agreement visible to the team – if it’s locked away in an electronic oubliette, it’s much harder to refer to when needed.  I encourage teams to post their working agreements as part of their visual management system, so that it’s on hand during team events.

Team working agreements will change as the team evolves and its circumstances change. Review the working agreement periodically to make sure it covers the actions the team needs to work on – this can be a great retrospective discussion.

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