Why does my team need a working agreement?
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?
- 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.