Team Working Agreements

January 4, 2021
9 minute read

Team working agreements are an important tool for any Agile coach working with teams. Knowing how to help a team create a team working agreement can make your work as an Agile coach more effective, help the team to advance to a high-performance state, and avoid many common sources of conflict or mis-understanding. Team working agreements are just great!

Upon meeting your team, find out if they have any existing working agreements either at the team level or the organization level. They might call them “standards”, “team agreements”, “policies” or a “code of conduct” among other things.

If the team has such a set of working agreements, read them carefully. If you can ethically do so, make a public written declaration that you agree to abide by the team’s current working agreements. This might take the form of an email to the whole team to which you attach the working agreements along with your statement that you agree to them. If you cannot ethically agree to the working agreements, make the conflict with the Agile Coach Ethical Framework transparent and discuss it with the appropriate authority (e.g. someone from the Human Resources department).

If the team does not have such a set of working agreements at the team level (which is quite common) you can offer to help create them. This type of agreement should be written in brief and simple language, fit easily on a single printed page, and contain some of the typical elements of a working agreement such as those listed next.

Typical Aspects of a Team Working Agreement

All team working agreements are different. However, there are a number of common topics that should be considered for inclusion in a team working agreement. Some teams may not need some of these topics, particularly if they are covered by organizational policies or regulations. The topics in increasing order of “difficulty” are:

  1. Tactics – what are the core working hours where team members are blocked off for team work in their calendars, how does the team coordinate vacation time to maintain service level agreements, what are the common work tools including collaboration tools, what is your service level agreement as an Agile coach with the team?

  2. Excellence and continuous improvement – how does the team improve quality, efficiency, productivity in a way that is collaborative and non-blaming, what time and money is available for this improvement work, what do “quality” and “excellence” and “improvement” mean to the team, what is your role as an Agile coach in helping the team with improvement?

  3. Trade-offs and priorities – what takes priority over what: for schedule, budget, quality, scope, risk, learning (usually a rank ordering technique such as the Ordering Protocol helps here)?

  4. Personal accommodations – how does the team help individual team members through accommodations such as for a blind team member or someone who has an environmental allergy?

  5. Professionalism and camaraderie – what are the basic principles of professionalism and how does that related to friendship and relationships outside of work?

  6. Accountability and transparency – what does accountability mean for a self-organizing Agile team, and what are the current limits on this, what individual accountabilities for team members are not part of the team work, and how does the team make transparent when either individual or collective accountabilities are being unmet?

Facilitating the Creation of a Team Working Agreement

You can help the team create a team working agreement simply by facilitating a basic agenda, usually over about 90 minutes, to cover the six topics listed above. You may wish to prepare for the meeting by having in mind some specific facilitation techniques and tools at the ready. If you are facilitating in-person, this can include 3×5 note cards, Sharpie-brand markers, flip chart paper or a large whiteboard. Likewise, if you are facilitating virtually, the use of a virtual collaborative whiteboard like Miro can provide most of the tools you need.

When you start the meeting, you might take up to 10 minutes to introduce the concept of a team working agreement and why it is helpful to have such a thing and allow some general questions. You should also introduce the remainder of the meeting agenda at this time. Make sure you cover these ideas about team working agreements:

  • they help a team reach a high-performance state more easily,

  • the team can avoid common sources of conflict and misunderstanding,

  • normally the agreement is visible to people outside the team,

  • the working agreement can evolve over time, and

  • the working agreement is not a contract, but a tool for collaboration.

After introducing the concept, you should immediately dive into the details of the agreement, covering the topics in the order they are listed above. Remember, the organization may have policies or regulations that cover some of the topics… invite the team to let you know about the existence of these things and incorporate them into the team working agreement by reference.

As the convenor of the meeting, you should also make sure you are recording the team’s decisions as they go and reflecting what you have recorded back to them to ensure they are in agreement. This is easier if you are using a virtual tool, but can be done fairly easily in-person by taking frequent digital photos and recording the session audio. If you record the session, make sure to tell the attendees you are doing so, and for what purpose!

At the end of the meeting, the team should review all the decisions they have made and formally accept the working agreement. This is usually quick if you have facilitated the meeting well. However, even the best facilitators can get surprised by an individual team member suddenly becoming resistant to the outcome. If this occurs, you should end the meeting and let the team know that you will work with the individual to talk through their concerns. You may also need to convene a follow-up meeting to finalize the agreement.

Do not extend the meeting duration past what is scheduled! You need to maintain the trust of the team with regards to the time-boxing and utility of any meetings you convene and since this is one of the first, you need to start by doing it right.

Common Pitfalls

There are three common pitfalls of team working agreements:

  1. Lowest common denominator – the members of the team are only able to agree on a very few minor points. This can happen if the team does not have a clear shared goal or vision, or if they have had a bad experience with working agreements in the past. In either case, you should be prepared to use facilitation techniques to address the root cause of the hesitancy, and encourage the team to try to create an agreement with something for each of the six common parts of a team working agreement (above).

  2. Aspirational, but impossible – the members of the team agree to unrealistic standards of perfection or excellence. This can happen if the team is too optimistic or idealistic, or if the team is confused about a vision statement vs. a team working agreement. Here, your facilitation work should be to narrow the agreement to things that the team unanimously agrees are achievable within one iteration/sprint/cycle/cadence. You may need to introduce an anonymous facilitation technique to allow dissenters to express their concern with the terms of the agreement without experiencing social pressure to comply.

  3. Bureaucratic tendencies – the members of the team become caught up in creating a detailed contract covering all possibilities and exceptions. This is usually an indicator of a low level of psychological safety within the organization, or a highly bureaucratic/technocratic culture. If safety is the issue, you will have to create a temporary sense of safety possibly by allowing the team to keep the working agreement private for a time. If it is cultural, then you may need to aggressively advise the team on paring the terms and conditions down and emphasizing key important ideas and principles.

Example Team Working Agreement

This is a very simple example of a team working agreement. It is an amalgam of items from several teams that I have personally worked with over the years:

Team Name: DART

Core Hours: Monday to Thursday, 10:00 to 12:00 and 1:30 to 3:30.

No personal phone calls in team room.

No stinky food in team room.

Avoid more than two people away on vacation simultaneously except the last two weeks of December… then, anything goes.

If you’re even slightly sick, work from home!

If you find something cool while surfing the net, share it!

As a team we prioritize schedule over quality over scope over budget over sustainable hours… unfortunately.

If you take more than one day to finish a task, ask for help!

If you wear headphones, it means you’re not working and need personal time as a break. Try avoid this during core hours.

The above example obviously skips a couple of the topic areas, but is good because it is very specific to the team in many instances. Some of the ideas are probably applicable to other teams, but DART has written things in their own way.

Your team might end up with more detail or very different items… that’s okay! It is more important that the team have unanimous agreement than that team working agreements across multiple teams are consistent.

A good team reviews its team working agreement and evolves it on a regular basis. This is usually done in the team’s retrospective meeting, but can also occur on-demand sometimes. However, team stakeholders should never force the team to change its working agreement unless it is for a legal or governance reason. Teams own their working agreements.

Berteig Consulting

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Bruce Power
Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada
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