Effective Working Agreements: A Simple Way to Improve Team Dynamics

Understanding Working Agreements

Imagine being on a team where everyone knows what they are supposed to do, how they should do it, and the norms that guide their behaviour. Sounds incredible, right? That’s where working agreements come into play. They are essential in creating such a high-functioning team environment.

Working agreements are the engine of any team. They establish the ground rules for collaboration, ensuring everyone is rowing in the same direction.

– Sir John Whitmore

As you delve into the dynamics of working agreements, it’s important to recognise the pivotal role they play in forging productive team dynamics. The heart of a successful working agreement, whether it’s in a Scrum team or any other collaborative team setting, lies in shared understanding and mutual trust. But what exactly are working agreements, and why are they so important?

Whitmore’s notion underscores the fact that working agreements aren’t just about rules and responsibilities. Rather, they shape the context within which the team operates. They are a shared vision that guides the team’s interaction, decision-making process, and conflict-resolution mechanism—a decidedly human element of efficient team dynamics.

The Fundamental Elements of Working Agreements

If Whitmore’s quote has you eager to craft an effective working agreement, let’s first understand their fundamental elements—

  1. Shared purpose: This states clearly the goals and objectives of the team. It keeps everyone aligned and focused on the end game.
  2. Roles and responsibilities: This allows each team member to understand their position within the team and know who does what.
  3. Processes and tools: This outlines the resources at your disposal and the procedures to be followed—ensuring the team shares the same work methods and communication channels.
  4. Norms and behaviours: This defines the acceptable conduct within the team. It sets the tone for interaction and the decision-making process.

By considering these elements when creating your working agreement, you ensure that the team has a solid foundation for collaboration—a foundation that is sturdy and fulfilling. As Whitmore said, working agreements are the engine of any team. So, let us craft a working agreement that runs like a well-oiled machine, shall we?

The Role of Working Agreements in Teams

Imagine being on a team where everyone knows what they are supposed to do, how they should do it, and the norms that guide their behaviour. Sounds incredible, right? That’s where working agreements come into play. They are essential in creating such a high-functioning team environment.

Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.
– Vince Lombardi

Enhancing Collaboration

Working agreements lay the foundation for effective collaboration. They explicitly state the roles everyone plays, their responsibilities, and the expectations laid on each team member. This clarity harmonises individual efforts, encouraging effective collaboration towards achieving shared goals.

Clear working agreements are a powerful catalyst for collaboration.

Establishing Team Norms

The rules of engagement within the team are set by working agreements. They outline acceptable behaviours, conduct, and methods of communication. This serves to promote respectful interactions and a safe space for open dialogue.

Improving Accountability

When team members understand their roles clearly and know what the team expects of them, they are likely to be more accountable. Team members are held accountable for their roles, enhancing individual and collective performance.

Adaptability

In a fast-paced business world where change is the only constant, working agreements foster adaptability. They provide a blueprint that navigates change – how to handle it, who is responsible and the processes to follow. Consequently, teams can flip the script during critical changes swiftly and efficiently.

Conflict Resolution

Agreements provide a roadmap for handling disagreements within the team. They might set procedures for resolving conflicts, thus avoiding unnecessary delays and friction that can hinder performance.

Alignment with Values

When crafting your working agreement, you are, in effect, setting the ethical and professional tone for your team. You are laying out a set of behaviours and principles which reflect the values you collectively hold. The central role of the agreement is to offer a defined space in which these values can coexist and operate in harmony.

Quality and Predictability

Building a culture of quality and predictability is contingent on consistency, and working agreements are a practical roadmap towards harmonious team cohesion. They serve as the codex of a team, clearly defining accountability, promoting constructive dialogue, and setting a benchmark for quality.

Team Empowerment

Working agreements also play a pivotal role in empowering teams. When all team members have a clear understanding of their roles, they often feel more in control and empowered. This can boost their confidence to take the initiative, leading to more effective and efficient teamwork.

Working agreements are not just about setting the rules; they are a tool for empowerment and enhancing performance.

Why Working Agreements Matter

If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.
– Henry Ford

So why, one might ask, are working agreements so crucial in the realm of team dynamics? Your question is justified, and it is essential to demystify the impact and the value that they can bring to the team and the organisation as a whole. Well-choreographed working agreements act as an invisible guiding hand, leading and steering the team towards the path of progress and development.

Think of working agreements as the DNA of your team – they encapsulate the team’s way of working and provide the foundations for how the team interacts, collaborates, and ultimately gets work done. Not just that – working agreements also subtly enfuse the unique and distinct traits of your team, consciously moulded to produce efficiency and social harmony. On one side, they confirm your team’s work habits, and on the other, they are embedded with the core values that the team represents.

But beyond the alignment of work habits and values, working agreements also serve a more profound purpose. They set the stage for open and honest conversations about what is and isn’t working. They become a catalyst for challenging team norms, infusing transparency and moulding a culture where issues are discussed and resolutions are sought, rather than brushed under the carpet.

This translates into an environment where everyone feels empowered, trusted, and accountable. Remember — accountability doesn’t lead to a culture of blame; rather, it instils a sense of ownership and responsibility. It’s about knowing what you have to do, and being trusted to do it. That’s why working agreements matter.

So, when you craft your team’s working agreement, make sure it becomes a reflection of your team’s aspirations and values. Make sure it becomes the instrument that guides the collective behaviour towards a common goal rather than just a paper decree. Make sure it stands to represent the team‘s commitment to each other and to the quality of work delivered. In the end, that’s what differentiates a group of individuals from a high-performing team.

The Impact of Poor Team Dynamics

Attempting to extract high productivity from a poorly functioning team can often feel like attempting to fill a sieve with water—you can pour a lot of energy in, but very little stays put. The impact of poor team dynamics on an organisation is multi-faceted, and it may significantly affect productivity, quality, employee turnover, and team satisfaction levels.

Decreased Productivity

Poor team dynamics often lead to decreased productivity. This is because when teams lack clear communication, mutual respect, and effective dispute resolution systems, it creates an environment in which confusion and conflict thrive. Distorted information and miscommunication lead to repeated mistakes and wasted time.

Good communication…isn’t as easy as it sounds…. Poor communication can invariably cause mistakes…misunderstandings, hurt feelings, or (worst-case scenario) the loss of a valued employee,– Forbes

Reduced Quality

Quality of output takes a hit when teams don’t work cohesively. This is because disjointed efforts rarely equate to high-calibre results. Team members working independently of each other are more likely to make errors or create output that doesn’t align with the overall project vision or goals. In addition, esteeming personal or departmental success above that of the team can be a byproduct of poor team dynamics, further causing a dip in quality.

Increased Employee Turnover

Frustration with poor team dynamics is often a significant contributor to employee turnover. When members feel unheard, disrespected or dragged down by team conflicts, they might opt to leave the company. This turnover not only disrupts productivity but is also an expensive problem to manage—consider both the direct costs associated with hiring and training new employees, as well as the lost productivity during these transition periods.

Decreased Team Satisfaction

Poor team dynamics also play a significant role in reducing team satisfaction. When team members don’t feel valued, heard, or respected within the team, their job satisfaction decreases. This lack of satisfaction may impact not only their productivity but also their mental well-being.

Statistics from a study by Human Resources Today offer a clear illustrative comparison:

AspectHigh Team DynamicsPoor Team Dynamics
Job Satisfaction92%29%
Commitment to Employer88%27%
Perceived Team Effectiveness98%33%

So, in essence, it becomes clear that ensuring the health of team dynamics should always be a priority. It presents a compelling case for Scrum Masters to actively manage and address such issues within their teams—right from the outset.

Using Working Agreements to…

… Communicate Effectively

The team dynamics of a scrum project can be significantly improved by promoting effective communication through working agreements. It’s important – I would even say crucial – to understand that the quality of interactions influences the success of the project. So, how can you shore up your team’s communication?

Make Expectations Clear and Explicit:

First and foremost, crystallising expectations can dissolve any ambiguity clouding the objectives of the scrum team. A working agreement can serve as a map, illuminating each person’s roles and responsibilities, which will, in turn, foster a sense of ownership and commitment amongst the team.

Establish Communication Norms:

Communication norms streamline the interaction among team members. Defining accepted communication channels, preferable meeting times, and responsiveness could eliminate misunderstandings and keep everyone on the same wavelength. Just remember, these norms must be agreed upon; otherwise, your well-intended guidelines can come off as draconian measures.

Promote Open and Honest Communication:

An environment that encourages transparency and straightforwardness is instrumental for agile teams to thrive. Open communication reduces the risk of internal rifts and disagreements — and it all starts with setting the right tone in your working agreement. Encourage all team members to voice their views, thoughts, and concerns freely.

Encourage Feedback and Discussion:

Feedback and constructive discussions are the lifelines of successful scrum teams. They can spark new ideas, refine existing ones and prune unproductive ones. As part of your working agreements, set routines for regular feedback sessions and ensure every member understands the essence of giving and receiving feedback in a positive spirit.

Provide a Framework for Conflict Resolution:

Teams are a microcosm of our diverse society – and as in society, conflicts can occur. The provision of a conflict resolution mechanism within the working agreement alleviates tension and periods of unease. Rather than avoiding conflict, effective strategies for confrontation can lead to productive solutions and a stronger, more tightly-knit team.

Effective communication is a cornerstone of successful teams. Incorporating these key elements into your working agreements enables you to lay a robust foundation for teamwork, ensuring optimum performance and project success.

… Resolve Conflict

Conflict can often arise in any team, especially when expectations are unclear or communication is lacking. A crucial role of a Scrum Master is to identify these sources of conflict and devise strategies to resolve them – here’s where working agreements come into play.

Identifying the Sources of Conflict

Working agreements can be an invaluable tool for identifying sources of conflict. In essence, they serve as a blueprint for how team members should interact and work together effectively.

  1. Making Expectations Clear and Explicit: Any ambiguity about roles and responsibilities can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. A working agreement, by defining the expectations clearly and explicitly, can prevent such issues from arising in the first place.
  2. Providing a Framework for Communication: A well-defined working agreement sets out the rules for communication, including when and how team members should communicate, thereby avoiding miscommunications that could lead to conflict.

Promoting Teamwork and Collaboration: A good working agreement encourages teamwork and collaboration, creating a collaborative environment that minimises the risk of conflict arising from territorial disputes or lack of cooperation.

Developing Strategies to Resolve Conflict

Once potential sources of conflict have been identified, a working agreement can also offer concrete strategies to manage and resolve such conflicts.

  1. Providing a Process for Resolving Disagreements: A process-driven approach to conflict resolution, as outlined in a working agreement, ensures a fair and democratic process that team members can trust.
  2. Promoting Open and Honest Communications: Encouraging team members to communicate openly and honestly about their issues or concerns can often help to surface and address conflicts before they escalate. The working agreement provides guidelines to ensure these communications remain productive and respectful.
  3. Encouraging Collaboration and Problem-Solving: By fostering a culture of collaboration and problem-solving, conflicts can be turned into opportunities for learning and improvement. A working agreement defines how this collaboration should take place and guides team members in how to problem-solve effectively.

Remember, a Scrum Master’s effectiveness is often judged by their ability to manage and resolve conflicts. By utilising working agreements to their fullest potential, you are not only setting your team up for success but also demonstrating your own proactive approach to conflict resolution.

… Improve Morale

Can working agreements contribute to boosting team morale? The answer – a resounding yes! Indeed, well-structured working agreements can not only foster a positive working environment but can also intrinsically motivate your team members, directly impacting their morale.

Creating a sense of community and belonging

We humans, as social beings, have an inherent need to feel part of a community. By providing a set of rules which every team member agrees upon, working agreements implicitly promote a sense of unity and inclusivity. They serve as a reminder that everyone is on the same page – ensuring that no one feels left out.

Promoting open and honest communication

The cornerstone of working agreements is the encouragement of transparency and open dialogue. This fosters a culture where team members feel safe expressing their ideas and concerns, thereby enhancing their morale. With clear, open communication, misunderstandings are less likely to occur, leading to a healthier and more productive work environment.

Establishing clear expectations and roles

Uncertainty and ambiguity are the two most potent underminers of team morale. By clearly defining expectations and individual roles, working agreements eliminate these uncertainties and create an environment where everyone knows what is expected of them. This benefits the team by reducing frustration and unnecessary conflict, further improving morale.

Providing a framework for resolving conflicts

Conflicts are inevitable in any team, and if not properly managed, they can have negative effects on morale. By having a pre-agreed conflict resolution framework, tensions are addressed promptly and effectively, and the risk of morale damage is averted.

A wise sage once said,

The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team. – Phil Jackson

The same could be said for team morale and working agreements. By focusing on the individual and the collective, working agreements bolster team unity, creating a synergy that leads to improved morale and, by extension, increased productivity.

Creating Effective Working Agreements

What is one of the most vital foundations of a high-functioning team? Indeed, it’s an effective working agreement. These guidelines, created and agreed upon by the team themselves, plot the course for successful collaboration and meaningful outputs.

So, how can you, as a scrum master, facilitate the development of such agreements? Let’s walk through a five-stage structure.

Begin with a Check-In

Starting off, it’s essential to establish an open and accepting environment. This begins with a check-in, a chance for everyone to express how they are, both professionally and personally. It sets the tone for transparency and honesty, two vital elements in creating working agreements.

Explain Working Agreements

Understanding the ‘what’, ‘why’, and ‘how’ of working agreements comes next. The goal is to reach a congruent understanding – working agreements are living documents that define interaction boundaries, establish expectations, and guide optimal team performance. You, as the scrum master, should articulate these points and clarify any questions before moving forward.

Craft Working Agreements as a Team

Collaboration is key when crafting effective working agreements. Remember – these rules are meant to serve your team and, therefore, should be a product of their collective input and consensus. Facilitate active participation, encourage open discussions, and manage disagreements positively.

Agree as a Team

The fourth stage calls for team agreement on the proposed working rules. At this juncture, it’s crucial to engage the team in a discussion and exploration of the fundamentals of a working agreement.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • Commitment How will we hold each other accountable for the commitments we make?
  • Respect How will we demonstrate respect to each member under all circumstances?
  • Openness How will we ensure a safe space for every team member to voice their thoughts and opinions?
  • Shared Purpose Beyond the work, what do we hope to achieve as a team?
  • Roles and Responsibilities What can people expect from you? What do you expect from the other team members?
  • Processes and Tools How do we communicate? What are the tools we use?
  • Norms and Behaviours When are we not contactable?

Addressing these fundamentals with example questions allows your team to create well-rounded working agreements realistic to their dynamics and challenges.

Get the Team’s Commitment

The best teamwork comes from men who are working independently toward one goal in unison.
– James Cash Penney

Finally, securing the commitments of every team member is all-important. It guarantees that the team, as a whole, upholds and adheres to the agreements in the times ahead. It’s essential to reiterate the significance of living by these working agreements to every single team member. Creating effective working agreements isn’t an easy task – it requires time, effort, and wholehearted participation from everyone. Remember, the goal isn’t to create a perfect set of rules; instead, it’s to craft an agreement that works for your team as a uniquely functioning unit.

Common Challenges in Creating Working Agreements

Creating effective working agreements can often present challenges, particularly within diverse or complex project teams. These stumbling blocks, however, should not discourage you from pursuing this worthwhile endeavour. In fact, awareness of these common pitfalls can equip you to circumvent them, bolstering both your development as a scrum master and your team‘s productivity. So – what are the main obstacles you might face? How can you effectively navigate these issues to establish effective working agreements?

Unclear Objectives

Issue: One of the most frequent hurdles you might encounter is a lack of clear objectives. Without a shared understanding of what you’re trying to achieve, it’s challenging to establish a meaningful and actionable working agreement.

Solution: To mitigate this, it’s crucial to clarify your aims from the outset. Ensure all team members understand the agreement’s objectives, the reasons behind it, and the benefits it offers. This clarity fuels engagement and motivates effective delivery.

Lack of Consensus

Issue: In any team, achieving consensus can often seem like an uphill struggle. Without a full agreement, implementing and enforcing your working agreement can become a fruitless task.

Solution: To address this issue, involve all team members in the creation of the agreement. Actively solicit their input, utilise their suggestions and ensure each person feels heard and valued. This shared ownership fosters buy-in, enhancing the agreement’s efficacy and acceptance.

Unrealistic Expectations

Issue: Overly ambitious or unrealistic expectations can doom any working agreement from the start, leading to frustration, demotivation, or non-compliance.

Solution: Be realistic and pragmatic in your expectations. Define achievable goals that align with the team‘s capabilities and resources. Remember, a working agreement should inspire progress, not prompt burnout.

Inadequate Follow-up

Issue: Working agreements are of little benefit if they’re forgotten or ignored post-creation. A lack of monitoring and reassessment can let these pivotal documents lose their spark and efficacy.

Solution: Regularly review and adapt your working agreement. Maintain an open dialogue about its effectiveness and make changes as necessary based on feedback and changing circumstances.

Progress is a process, not an event.

Understanding this can help you navigate the nuances of creating and maintaining an effective working agreement and drive your team to new heights of collaboration and productivity.

Creating working agreements can indeed be fraught with challenges. But, through deliberate and thoughtful action, you can dodge these pitfalls and elevate team dynamics. Focus on clear objectives, consensus, realistic expectations, and diligent follow-up – keys to making your working agreement a living, breathing, improving part of your team’s fabric.

When to Create Working Agreements?

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.
– Michael Jordan

How often have you considered the splashdown tempo of your team’s working agreements? Many believe these arrangements should be structured solely at the project’s start–perceived as settled arrangements, immutable and timeless. However, this perspective, dear reader, is deeply flawed.

While working agreements are undeniably vital at the start of any team’s journey, it’s equally important–if not more so–to revisit them consistently. But when might you ask? Let us delve into these junctures of reassessment that can be of absolute importance to the dynamism of your team:

When the team changes

People are the fundamental constructs of any team; thus, any shift in team members is a definitive call for reassessment. Perhaps a new member has joined, bringing fresh perspectives and ideas. Or, potentially, a seasoned member has departed, altering the team’s dynamics. These shifts necessitate substantial re-evaluations.

When the work changes

Nothing in our contemporary rapidly evolving workforces is set in stone. If your team encounters a change in methodology, client, or project scope, it’s crucial to review your working agreements. This ensures that they align with evolving demands and expectations.

When the team reaches key milestones

Taking the time to reflect also becomes crucial at key team development milestones. These may include the successful (or unsuccessful) completion of significant tasks or projects, annual reviews, or notable shifts in team performance. Acknowledging these milestones can prompt a beneficial recalibration of your agreements.

Working agreements are not stagnant constructs; they are fluid, ever-evolving facets of your team’s dynamics that should shift with changes in both team composition and work patterns.

Thus, never restrict these vital working agreements to the confines of “once at the start.” – think of them as living documents, requiring constant reviews and revisions – exactly like your team. Treat them, dear reader, as reflective mirrors of your team’s morphing dynamics.

Working Agreements are Catalysts

Working agreements function as catalysts in maintaining healthy, productive team dynamics. Far from simply setting the rules of engagement, they create a cooperative environment that fosters effective communication and mutual respect, providing a vibrant atmosphere where high-performing teams can thrive.

While setting up these agreements might seem challenging at first —after all, creating a one-size-fits-all framework has its pitfalls— this process is a journey. Yes, it is something that necessitates conversations, brainstorming, trial and error. Periodic reviews and updates are essential to ensure they remain relevant and effective.

Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.
– Patrick Lencioni

Dedicate yourself to fostering transparent and consistent dialogue within your team. It’s crucial for the long-term efficiency and productivity that stems from well-drawn working agreements.

  • Integrate the principles of Agile into your agreements to promote collaboration and adaptability.
  • Seek everyone’s input to make sure all voices are heard. This is crucial for buy-in, adherence, and mutual accountability in the long run.
  • Finally, commit to ongoing improvement. You see, a working agreement isn’t a one-and-done endeavour. Regular reviews and adjustments keep it alive and effective.

Remember, you have a significant role to play as a scrum master. You are not a manager; you’re a leader. Encourage a culture of openness and respect, facilitating conversations and making sure everyone’s perspectives are considered.

author avatar
John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.
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