Team agreements create clarity and mutual expectations in a social system. They can also boost productivity and create freedom of mind. By making implicit social expectations explicit, team members concentrate on real, wholehearted interactions, dive into creativity, and let go of social fears. In this way, working agreements help teams co-create their most ideal and productive environment and may also prevent misunderstandings that lead to conflict.
Making social standards explicit for teams may feel unfamiliar. Some team members may feel awkward when asked to write down what seems to be obvious, professional behavioral expectations, but doing so is important. When team members don’t clarify mutual expectations, they tend to make assumptions about what the other person wants or intended. Paul Watzlawick wrote an appropriate story about this, which he called "The Pursuit of Unhappiness”. In it, a man would like to borrow a hammer from his neighbor to hammer in a nail. But our protagonist, unfortunately, manages to spin so many fantasies in his head that his mind makes him dislike asking at all, and he just runs over to the neighbor to yell at the clueless man, saying, "Keep your hammer!"
Our expectations often have more to do with ourselves than with our counterparts. Unconscious guesswork is often just plain wrong about others' needs and wishes. Then the other person doesn't understand the expectations. This lack of dialogue is a patent recipe for disappointment. Those disappointments add up and consume the social capital of a team. Instead of using the collective intelligence for the benefit of the product, the team grows apart, becoming a bunch of individuals rather than a team or, in the worst case, the social system collapses because of it.
Team agreements provide a pragmatic remedy here: if needs are known, they are more easily met. In this way, they make aspects of teamwork explicit that often are mishandled implicitly.
While there are many ways to facilitate creating working agreements, this small, workshop-style format works for many teams.
Schedule an hour and a half for this workshop. If the team is very new and unfamiliar with each other, start with a get-to-know-each-other exercise, such as Personal Maps, before beginning work on your team agreement.
Check-in questions help participants to arrive mentally in the meeting and tune into the topic at hand with an emotional understanding of their peers in that present moment. For a team agreement workshop, check-in questions could be: Tell us about a team you worked in that felt successful — what were the characteristics of that team? When you think about teamwork, which positive attributes pop up in your mind?
Positive Psychology suggests starting each meeting with something true and positive, as it helps the brain to stay in a solution-focused model. This is especially helpful for a working agreement workshop — suggest to the team that everyone work to stay on the positive side of the check-in question discussion.
Give your participants three minutes to think about the question (maybe let them add stickies to a real or virtual board) and then encourage each participant to share for one minute. Make sure every participant gets the same timebox for sharing and avoid commentary about the stories shared. A friendly smile and thank you before moving onto the next share works well.
It may help to share a personal story from your professional or personal life in which working agreements helped. End the introduction by pointing out a few benefits of working agreements, as stated before.
Before diving into the exercise, point out that there is no right or wrong with any wish or expectation an individual may have.
Two great questions to help you get started:
In the liftoff phase of a team, let the team members brainstorm about these questions. This works well in person and digitally. Ask the participants to write each wish on a (virtual) sticky with a five-minute timebox.
Share the wishes either by bingo facilitation or let the participants directly group together any duplicates and place similar points next to each other to reflect the weight of similar wishes. Looking at them together, discuss specifics and ask those present:
What else needs to be said? It’s important to stay silent for a few moments at this point. Some of the most crucial and controversial aspects will only be said if the group creates space for them to arise.
Ask the participants whether they all agree on the items in the working agreement or if anything has to be changed? You could choose different facilitation options here such as thumbs voting, fist of five, a round of voices, etc. It is crucial at this stage that everyone is on board before you go to the next stage.
In this step, help the team enrich their working agreements with aspects they might not have thought about. The following questions can be helpful:
Before closing the workshop, have the participants formally commit to the team agreement. In persona workshops, this could include signing the flipchart or whiteboard on which the team agreement was created. Virtually, have participants add emojiis or photos to the virtual whiteboard.
In this step, clarify what the team needs from facilitators to live those working agreements. Ask the participants the following question: “What do you need from me as a scrum master to create the atmosphere described at the beginning?”
End the workshop with a conscious check-out process. The chosen format depends on time left, the mood of the participants, and energy in the room. Check outs are crucial, as they help participants and facilitators leave the workshop with a sense of completeness and they are such good indicators of the success of these meetings. This could be:
Working agreements create transparency and clarity so teams can release energy that would be spent on conflict and focus on their work. Furthermore, team agreements add the same value for remote teams as they do for in-person teams.
These concepts can also be used for more than just scrum teams. Workshops and seminars can also benefit from the group sharing wishes and expectations explicitly so they are visible and clear to all. This helps communities grow through mutual understanding.
Related article: How to Engage Quiet Team Members In Discussions
Jasmine Simons-Zahno and Kai H. Simons are the founders of the Agile Growth Academy. Simons-Zahno holds a master's degree in psychology as well as being a Certified Scrum Professional (CSP®-SM and CSP®-PO). Simons is a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST®), Certified Enterprise Coach (CECSM) and a graduated computer scientist.
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