Creating Working Agreements that are actually useful

Sept 28, 2018  ·  Tony O'Halloran

Working Agreements, Team Norms, Team Charters… Call them what you want, they’re great in theory but in practise they can be awkward to come up with and difficult to implement.

Committing to “don’t be a dick” and “respect each other” is well and good, but it’s pretty much implied. We shouldn't need a charter to remind us of this or to hold each other accountable to the basic abc’s of being a human.

Let's dig a bit deeper to uncover something more useful...

Constellations is an exercise that was originally created by Bert Helliger as part of his Family Therapy practice, but more recently popularised by Lyssa Adkins. I’ve been using Constellations for a few years now to help teams generate tangible and practical working agreements. It’s a pretty straightforward process:

  1. Use Constellations to visualise existing preferences and styles

  2. Reflect and discuss as a team

  3. Capture how we can leverage our strengths, counter our weaknesses and accommodate the diversity of styles that we discover in a charter

To begin, clear a space (or universe) and mark the center with an object. Then, the facilitator should make a statement that each individual answers by rearranging themselves physically around the room. The closer a team member steps to the center of the universe, the more true that statement is for them. This asks participants to physically take a stand for their opinions, and it allows them to do so in a non-judgemental way.

Now, the interesting part - when coming up with the statements I like to think of:

What are the decisions that, if made now could help us in the future when the pressure is on, or things haven’t gone our way?

What could we aspire to be as a team?

Then, I form these into statements that are non-judgemental (i.e there is no wrong/good answer). This is not an opportunity to criticise or attack after all :)

For example, how will your team make decisions? Some people are happy making decisions on-the-spot, and some (me included) like to mull things over individually and weigh up different options before making a call. Occasionally, these two styles can come into conflict. Why not design how we’re going treat these situations up-front? To address this, simply state “I generally like to make decisions on-the-spot” and watch the team organise themselves to reflect whether this is the case for them or not.

The next step is to ask the room to reflect on their teammates' positions and discuss how they intend to deal with it in the future. For example, “Given what we now know about each other, how are we going to handle making decisions as a team?”. This is an opportunity to find out if your team needs to make some concessions for each other's styles if there are differences, or spot potential weaknesses or strengths if everyone is on the same page.

We then capture these as aspirational statements and commitments in the team charter, for example:

For decisions with a team-wide impact, we will use the Decider Protocol with 1-hour minimum "mulling over" time before making our minds up

Some other Constellations sample statements I’ve used are:

  • I’m happy to be interrupted while I’m working

  • I’m happy to receive constructive feedback on my work on the spot

  • I need to be involved in all team decisions

  • I tend to focus on big-picture as opposed to detail

  • I thrive under pressure

  • I find it easy to give feedback

I always make time to allow the team the opportunity to come up with their own discovery statements at the end, to get clarity on some of the things that they've found important for them to be successful in the past.

What are some of the things you like to discover about your teammates as soon as possible?

Here's more on Team ground rules and working agreements

Categories: Agile Coaching.

Tags: team charters, Working agreements.