Working Agreements

It is surprising how many unnecessary conflicts are caused by the absence of working agreements in all sort of human systems, yet it is not common practice.

A lot of conflicts in organizations are caused by one or more of the following causes:

  • Absence of working agreements
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities
  • Lack of alignment and shared vision

Most conflicts are not caused because individuals are evil. If that was the case everyone working in organizations would be an asshole, and that’s truly not the case. Individuals are forced to do evil things by the system. If you want, you can investigate about Fundamental Attribution Error and Systems Theory.

It is not worth coaching a team to increase their trust, commitment or cohesiveness when foundations are not even in place. That’s like putting the cart before the horse. Without working agreements, clear roles and responsibilities, and a common and compelling purpose there isn’t much you can do in helping a team improve its performance.

(Hackman, 2002) shows an interesting study:

Performance & WA

In this study they looked at the relationship between team performance and the combination of working agreements with the expertise to do the task:

  • First team on the left had no working agreements or expertise (Neither)
  • Second, had working agreements but no expertise (Intervention Only)
  • Third, had expertise but no working agreements (Expertise Only)
  • Fourth, had both working agreements and expertise (Both)

As you can see, a group of experts without working agreements is the worst case scenario, the poorest of all performances, even worse than teams with no expertise and no working agreements. On the other hand, teams with the expertise and working agreements clearly outperform others.

So, please, take working agreements seriously into consideration. And afterwards you can go and do some tree hugging if you want 🙂

Fair enough … But what the f*** are Working Agreements?

Working agreements are the rules of the game, a social contract, norms of conduct, boundaries, what is allowed, what is not allowed, expectations, rights and duties.

Can you play a game without rules? Can you? NO. Neither can you work without your working agreements.

Imagine a football game with the rules of basketball and waterpolo mixed. Wouldn’t that be a mess? Well, that’s what you can see in many teams and organizations. And you can tell just by the impressive amount of conflict and the shit they deliver. And that’s not because people are evil.

More definitions:

  • Work agreements are the set of rules/disciplines/processes the team agrees to follow without fail to make themselves more efficient and successful.
  • What all team members believe are important protocols for the Team to comply with to maximize their capabilities to deliver faster and with higher quality.
  • Working agreement are guidelines that define how groups want to work together, and what they want in the working environment and from each other to feel safe and free to learn,explore and discover. When people meet in groups, there generally are agreements about how interactions between the group members will happen. These agreements can be discussed, assumed or written down. These agreements can be called working agreements, ground rules, working guidelines, etc.

Explicit vs Implicit WA

One important task of a leader or coach is to make explicit any implicit assumptions, beliefs, values or behaviors. Anything implicit is going to be a source of conflict, misunderstanding and waste of time and money for the organization. So, make it visible and deal with the conflict.

When teams are new, the recommendation is that you make working agreements explicit from the beginning in a Team Launch session(s). However, if the team is already existing you will probably have to make many things visible and reach agreements.

Consensus. Yes or Not?

I’m a very practical person, so I don’t believe in consensus. I believe in agreements that help teams getting closer to their goals. As a team member, if I don’t agree with a team’s decision taken by majority, I accept and I commit to that because the most important is team’s goal, not my perspective of the world. But, this is my approach.

If you are going to facilitate a session to define working agreements, you will have to define some meta-working agreements in advance. For instance, how decisions are taken, by simple majority, 60/30, consensus?

If you are working with small teams reaching consensus will be easier, but if you are dealing with teams with more than 5 people or with very diverse teams, reaching consensus is going to be hard and energy drowning.

Here is where Vision and Purpose come into play. Reaching agreements or consensus when there is no clear Vision is going to be difficult because many people will typically look at their own interests and goals, not to team’s or company’s. Even if they are not that selfish they won’t be able to differentiate functional behaviors from dysfunctional ones.

So, Working Agreements go hand in hand with Vision and Purpose.

Yeah, ok. But, give me some examples. What type of rules are you talking about?

  • Presence and focus – Electronics by exception in meetings
  • Only one conversation at a time
  • Raise your hand before talking
  • Assume responsibility – No blaming
  • Do not take comments personally
  • Meetings start on time – we don’t wait for anyone
  • Attack the problem not the person – we want to solve a situation not to fix a person
  • What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas
  • When sending a meeting invite include: Goal, Agenda and Pre-work

Enough? 🙂

Some recommendations

  • Make it short – 10 rules at most
  • Obvious, but just in case – Rules come from the team, never from you, managers or stakeholders
  • Ask everyone to commit to the agreements
  • Working agreements should evolve as teams evolve
  • Make it visible
  • Keep reminding people that working agreements exists, specially through positive reinforcement and feedback
  • Ask the team what happens when someone violates a working agreements (this is another meta-working agreement)
  • Book 2 hours at least for a session to define WA with a team of 5
  • One clear and agreed rule is better than 7 unclear or without agreement
  • The goal is to reach a decision the group can accept, not necessarily a decision that fulfills every member’s wishes.

Expert’s Opinion

(Hackman, 2002) argues:

Behavior in a group has always to be managed. Otherwise, members will head off in their own preferred directions and the team as a whole may not accomplish much of anything. One way to manage team behavior is through continuous multilateral discussion and negotiation. But that is terribly inefficient.

The more efficient, more powerful, and more common way of managing team behavior is through the creation and enforcement of group norms.

Norms are shared agreements among members about what behaviors are valued in the group, and what behaviors are not.

In general the most common and powerful group norms are those that bring order, predictability and comfort to the interactions among members. Less frequently seen are norms that explicitly guide how member expertise is used or how the team’s performance strategy is invented and implemented.

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