Testing That Team Agreement

April 20, 2008 by
Filed under: Project management, Teamwork 

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about what can happen when a team agreement is hastily put together: it can actually be worse than no team agreement at all, and can serve to tear a team apart. It is one thing to observe this and note that the team agreement was part of the root cause. What tests can we apply to our team agreement to determine if it is good enough to pass muster to begin with?

As we are developing the team agreement, there are a few questions we can ask to determine its robustness. First off, we need to be sure that the agreement is not filled with empty platitudes. While every team I have worked with has expressed the desire to have fun as they work together, capturing this as part of an agreement by saying ‘we will have fun as a team’ is not enough. You can’t just tell your kids they have to have fun on a family outing and expect miracles, but you can make sure the event is interesting engaging and stimulating to them. We need to be careful to craft an agreement that helps us achieve our final objectives, rather than simply expressing our goals.

A team will have an environment where there is an opportunity for fun only if they can avoid the stressors that often derail teams: bogging down with difficult decisions, working at odds with one another, proposing alternatives that are counter to the goals and value systems of others on the team. We need to build an environment where we won’t step on each other’s toes. The agreement, then, needs to be based on a solid understanding of the goals and motives of everyone in the group, and this understanding becomes a critical precursor for success. We can’t just write an agreement, we all need to understand each other first. Strengths, interests, goals, motivations. The makeup of the team drives the content of the agreement. Behaviors that are offensive need to be identified in the agreement as taboo.

If there is nobody in the team with natural assertive tendencies, the agreement should identify mechanisms to establish how the team will focus on goals and adhere to task at the beginning of each activity. Ditto if there are gaps in analytic (how do we make sure decisions are driven by the right data?) or altruistic (how do we ensure everyone’s needs are being met?) traits in the team. An effective team needs strengths in all these areas, and if we don’t cover our gaps through explicit mechanisms we have identified in advance, when the need arises for our missing traits to shine, the team will often feel pushed into a position that is stressful. Again, it is the structure of the team that drives the content.

As an example, if you are a naturally altruistic parent, you can deal with kids and traffic in two different ways. If you find yourself pushed into assertive behavior as you urgently jerk your child back from oncoming traffic, that application of behaviors that are outside your comfort zone will result in a lot of stress. If, on the other hand, you consciously sit your child down and assertively cover the rules of the road, you can avoid the stressful situation and maintain your composure. You get far less stress with a little forethought and conscious application of non-standard behaviors in a proactive manner.

As the team works in the context of this agreement, there are several additional tells that will help us identify flaws that need to be adjusted. Despite any precautions we might take, there will be times when toes are stepped on, when the beginnings of conflict become apparent. Left unchecked, a vicious circle drags the team down until trust is eroded, and can quickly get to the point where it is difficult, if not impossible, to recover. The team agreement needs specific practices to break the circle of conflict before it gets too deep. Is there a mechanism to safely indicate that stress is rising, that you were offended by what has just happened? After you have signaled your concern, then what? Is there a mediation mechanism identified to clean up the concern?

How will the team resolve differences to the satisfaction of all participants? Majority rule will rarely work, and should only be seen as a last resort. Consensus is far better, if more difficult to obtain. In most cases, there will be some criteria that can be identified as the basis for selection of the right approach, a strong agreement will help a team decide how to decide for specific situations.

Surrounding all these elements is the team’s attitude to the agreement itself. Is it recognized by everyone as a critical guide to behaviors that facilitate success, or yet another piece of documentation that is preventing the team from getting to what they see as the real work to be done? Does it remain top of mind with the team, reviewed periodically to reinforce its content or left to wither like an unused specification? Is it modified when the team discovers that unwarranted conflict is not adequately addressed by the guidance, and it is it a tool used to accept new members to the team? Is it adjusted to reflect what this new member brings to the group? Is it respected as a valuable tool for the group?

The tests of a team agreement come as a reflection against the team itself. If it is biased to accentuate the strengths of the group and shore up the deficiencies, if it serves to protect the interests of the group and prevent unwarranted conflict among the team, it will serve its purpose. If you look at your agreement and don’t see this reflection of the personality of the team, you are asking for trouble. Rather than generically identifying goals that any team might have, a strong team agreement helps ensure that the team actually gets there. – JB

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