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Working agreements - The DNA of team culture

As a leader, at all levels, you are concerned with establishing an effective, productive team culture.   Effective, productive team cultures provide boundaries for team member with regards to attitudes and behaviors that work to establish trust and psychological safety within the team. Working agreements, also known as team norms, are an important tool for teams to establish their expectations of behavior for the group so that trust can flourish.

Every team has working agreements, whether implicit or explicit.  As a leader of a self-organizing Agile team, you have an important role in supporting your team in developing effective working agreements that lead to productive, respective behavioral norms.  What is your role as a leader in establishing those agreements?  What makes working agreements effective? How many should we have? What are some ways to facilitate this discussion?

What are working agreements?

According to of Jane Haskell of the University of Maine, working agreements are guidelines that define how groups want to work together; what they want in the working environment, and what they want from each other to feel safe and free to learn, explore and discover.[1]

Working agreements help establish team culture and norms by defining expected behavior of team members. They establish a common language, enhance performance and provide structure for team collaboration.[2]

Why are they important? 

Team working agreements provide a foundation for the team to develop a shared sense of responsibility for their work.  In many ways, it is this feeling of shared responsibility that provides the foundation for respect, trust and safety to grow. Good working agreements encourage positive behaviors; and allow the team to self-organize around them. 

Characteristics of effective working agreements

For teams that last longer than a meeting or two, it is important that they are developed by the group themselves and not dictated to them. As a leader you are not there to define the conditions for them.[3] You are really there to facilitate; to provide a safe space or meeting environment for the team to define their own working agreements.  To do this, you’ll need to have a facilitative process outlined for yourself that will help the group discuss and come to consensus on their working agreements.

Simple, direct and actionable

Agreements need to be simple, direct and actionable. They need to be easily recognized and enforceable. Complex agreements are difficult to remember and therefore will be difficult to follow in the moment.  Simple agreements focus on positive behaviors that are definable. The old chestnut "don't be a dick" is funny (and true) but is really difficult to define in a way that everyone immediately recognizes.  That makes it effectively unenforceable.  Much better is an agreement to "treat each other with respect" and a discussion of what that may mean to us. 

Limited in number

It is better to limit the number of working agreements.  If there are too many working agreements they are difficult to remember, which renders the entire list worthless.  Science has found that our short term memory is limited to between 4 - 7 items.[4] Start with fewer items, the ones the team feels are really important; and then add agreements when needed as the team evolves their process together.  Keep it short and simple.  Something that you can introduce a new team member to in a minute or so. 

Prominent and visible

Keep working agreements posted in a visible place - a poster on a wall, or on a digital white board where the team is working for example.   Be prepared to re-post often, so that they are available for team members to refer to.  This repetition is critical for the working agreements to become part of the teams "DNA"; to be embedded into the teams culture so that following these agreements is simply how we work with each other every day. 

Some examples of short, direct, actionable working agreements for Scrum teams are: 

 

  • Start and Stop meetings on time
  • What is our Definition of Done for product increments
  • When and where will we have our daily scrum meeting every day
  • Listen to each other.

For remote teams, other working agreements may also be appropriate

  • Stay on mute when not talking in remote meeting
  • Cell phones are off or on silent when we are in meeting

Hold each other accountable

Team members hold each other accountable for their behavior.  This needs to be done in a non-confrontational way. By having known working agreements, that the team has developed and everyone has agreed to; a simple reminder like  "Hey, we agreed to come to meetings on time and focus, remember?" may be enough.  If not, as leader, you may call a team meeting to address the behavior (not the person) and keep the meeting focused on the positive. 

Review working agreements regularly

It is important that the team inspects and adapts their working agreements on a regular basis. Team context shifts, membership changes, or simply discovering a conflict we need to resolve and remember should trigger a discussion about evolving our working agreements.  As a leader, bringing this up as a topic in a retrospective may be appropriate. Perhaps this is a regular agenda item when a new release cycle is starting; or an ad hoc meeting is called when a difficult conflict within the team is being resolved so we can track what we've agreed to. 

Agreements become part of the culture

 

Good working agreements provide structure for a team to develop shared norms, trust, and psychological safety leading to a positive team culture that enables a safe, collaborative, productive working environment.  Your role, as a leader, is to facilitate so that the team has good working agreements; and lead by example in following the agreements, promoting awareness of positive behavior.


[1] Haskell, Jane, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Working Agreements, https://www.uvm.edu/sites/default/files/working-agreements-defined.pdf

[2] "Working Agreements: A Starting Guide & Template", https://blog.bonus.ly/working-agreements#:~:text=Let's%20start%20with%20the%20definition,and%20create%20a%20common%20language.&text=Through%20the%20working%20agreement%20process,awareness%20of%20interaction%20between%20individuals.

[3] Haskell, Jane, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Working Agreements, https://www.uvm.edu/sites/default/files/working-agreements-defined.pdf

[4]  "Mind's Limit 4 Things At Once" LiveScience Blog, https://www.livescience.com/2493-mind-limit-4.html#:~:text=While%20the%20average%20person%20may,order%20after%20only%20five%20minutes.

Tamara Runyon

 

Tamara (Sulaiman) Runyon is a Scrum trainer and enterprise Agile coach with more than 30 years experience in business management and software development. Prior to establishing APMI in 2014, she worked with both hardware and software teams at Intel Corporation as an enterprise Agile coach. Tamara has worked with several renowned organizations in the Scrum and Agile industry, including CollabNet and Solutions IQ, focusing on training and coaching ScrumMasters, Product Owners, and Scrum teams.As a thought leader, Tamara sat on the Board of Directors of the Agile Alliance from 2008 - 2012 and has held multiple volunteer positions for the Agile Alliance conferences over the years, including Track Chair. She has spoken at the Agile Project Leadership Network and the Northwest Software Quality Conference, as well as being a regular presenter at various Agile conferences since 2006.Tamara has authored and contributed to several industry publications, including being the lead author of the research paper "AgileEVM - Earned Value Management in Scrum Projects”. Her techniques in AgileEVM are now used by major corporations in the defense industry. Tamara is a regular contributor to industry publications such as ProjectManagement.com (formerly Gantthead), The Agile Journal, InfoQ, and Methods&Tools where she publishes her ideas and experiences on Agile project management with Scrum.

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